What Legos and a Canadian Power Trio Teach Us About Purpose – Part 1

on February 6, 2013
Resources Employee Engagement

Businessman Pushing BoulderIn his book The Upside of Irrationality, Dan Ariely uses a series of experiments to shed insight into human behavior and why our actions often defy logic and intuition. One set of experiments was specifically designed to help quantify the impact of purpose, meaning, and context on one’s work.

As opposed to trying to measure the value of large-scale meaning like curing cancer, feeding the homeless, and saving the world, they wanted to understand the more common instances of meaning and purpose that occur in everyday work and life. In this experiment, participants were asked to build Lego Bionicles® (small robots) in exchange for a nominal fee for each robot built.

Two conditions were set up to measure the difference in performance when meaning was present versus when it was absent. In the “meaning” group, each robot built was examined and stored somewhere safe. In the “Sisyphean” condition (in honor of the mythical king Sisyphus who was condemned to perpetually push a rock up a hill), the robots were literally destroyed right before the participants’ eyes as soon as they finished building them.

While powerful, the results were hardly surprising. Despite being paid the exact same amount per robot, the participants in the meaning condition built an average of 10.6 robots, while their counterparts in the Sisyphean condition were only able to muster an average of 7.2 robots. What really caught my eye, though, was when they factored the extent to which the participants liked building Legos into the results.  Based on his findings from overlaying these criteria on the data, Ariely came to the following conclusion:

What this analysis tells me is that if you take people who love something and you place them in meaningful working conditions, the joy they derive from the activity is going to be a major driver in dictating their level of effort. However, if you take the same people with the same initial passion and desire and place them in meaningless working conditions, you can very easily kill any internal joy they might derive from the activity.

Amazing to consider how powerful simple acknowledgements can be in providing meaning to work. Conversely, it is somewhat depressing to see how quickly a person’s inherent joy and passion can evaporate when that acknowledgement and ability to connect meaning to their work is absent.

This got me wondering about the importance of things like meaning and purpose when applied on a larger scale, such as to a career. For example, could a doctor lose the passion they have for helping people if the care they provide is not acknowledged and appreciated or their advice is unheeded? Based on my incredibly unscientific research (I asked a few members of the medical profession some innocent questions over cocktails), they do, over time, lose some of that inherent passion and enthusiasm for helping people when patients fail to act on their recommendations or when the medical system makes it difficult for them to provide the care they know they need to provide. Now, to be fair, each person was quick to point out that this does not mean that the level of care they provide suffers in any way. While the quality of care may not suffer, I am almost certain that the quality of experience for the patient probably does.

Connecting purpose and meaning at the various levels of the business is something that organizations don’t always do, and I think this experiment starts to help people understand that they are directly correlated.

So now you’re wondering what the Canadian Power Trio means to purpose? Next week, I’ll help  you connect those dots.


Purpose: The Magical Multiplier
What Does It Mean to Be a Leader? Cutting to the Chase

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