Acknowledged, Ignored, or Shredded

The experiments described in The Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization research paper are both quite simple. Yet they capture fundamental truths about how we relate to the work we do.

Imagine you’re one of the MIT students who volunteered for the experiments described below. What would you do?

Experiment #1

In the first experiment, you’re handed a sheet of paper filled with typed letters and paid 55 cents for finding ten instances of two consecutive ones. You’ll be paid 50 cents for analyzing a second page, 45 cents for a third page, and so on. Participants perform the task under one of three conditions. (Subjects didn’t know about the other conditions or their labels.) 

In the Acknowledged condition, the subjects were asked to write their name on each sheet prior to starting the task. The instructions explained that after completing the task, they would hand the sheet over to the experimenter who would examine it and file it away in a folder. 

In the Ignored condition, the subjects were not instructed to write their name on the sheets, and in fact none did so. Moreover, the instructions explained that, after the subject completed the task, the experimenter would place the sheet on a high stack of papers. The experimenter in fact did so without examining the completed sheets. 

The Shredded condition was the same as the Ignored condition except that the instructions explained that the completed sheets would be immediately put through a paper shredder. As the subjects turned in the sheets, the experimenter shredded them without a glance.

Under which condition would you perform more work?

Experiment #2 

In the second experiment, you are asked to build a kind of Lego figure called a Bionicle. You’re paid $2 for the first one you build, eleven cents less for the next one, and so on down to 2 cents for the twentieth Bionicle and beyond. In this experiment, there are two conditions.

In the Meaningful condition, after the subject would build each Bionicle, he would place it on the desk in front of him, and the experimenter would give him a new box with new Bionicle pieces. Hence, as the session progressed, the completed Bionicles would accumulate on the desk. 

In the Sisyphus condition, there were only two boxes. After the subject completed the first Bionicle and began working on the second, the experimenter would disassemble the first Bionicle into pieces and place the pieces back into the box. Hence, the Bionicles could not accumulate; after the second Bionicle, the subject was always rebuilding previously assembled pieces that had been taken apart by the experimenter.

Under which condition would you perform more work?

Results

You can readily guess that the MIT students did more work if they were in the Acknowledged or Meaningful conditions. What most people can’t guess is just how much more work. “Almost half of the subjects in the Acknowledged condition were willing to work until the wage dropped all the way to zero,” far out-pacing the other students. Subjects in the Meaningful condition built 40% more Bionicles, and also built them faster. The small signals of recognition and purpose made a significant difference. 

One of the researchers, Dan Ariely, describes the results in a popular TED talk titled “What makes us feel good about our work?” Recognition and purpose needn’t be lofty ideals, he said. They can be as simple as someone acknowledging your work and making it possible for you to see that you contribute, even tangentially, to some objective. 

Perhaps, like me, you’ve had bosses who have done the equivalent of ignoring or shredding your work. What do you do when that happens? Do you hope they’ll change, or pray for a new boss? How do you feel?

Whenever I found myself working in the “pointless” condition, I would be miserable. Then I learned how to make my work visible so others could see it and use it. That made it possible for me to gain a feeling of recognition and purpose from anywhere, from anyone. It made my work better and made me happier.

“Identity, pride, and meaning are all left out from standard models of labor supply,” the researchers said, “but ignoring the dimension of meaning may be quite expensive, for employer and for society.”

What conditions are you working in? What will you do about it?

Acknowledged, Ignored, or Shredded.jpg

What happened to “Working” in the last 45 years

I vaguely remember when Working came out. It was 1972. I was 8 years old. Calculators were becoming popular, and people were just starting to talk about computers.

The subtitle of the book is “People talk about what they do all day and how they feel about what they do.” It’s based on over 100 interviews with people in a wide range of jobs across the US - from gravedigger to TV executive, and consists almost entirely of the words of those people. (You can also listen to the original audio recordings.)

Despite all of the changes since those interviews over four decades ago years ago, many of the themes remain the same. Perhaps primarily, there was the need to make a difference, a search for meaning.

“I think most of us are looking for a calling, not a job. Most of us…have jobs that are too small for our spirit. Jobs are not big enough for people.”
“You know you’re not doing anything, not doing a hell of a lot for anyone. Your job doesn’t mean anything. Because you’re just a little machine. A monkey could do what I do . It’s really unfair to ask someone to do that.”
“A man’s life is his work. You see humanity in a chair. It was made by some man’s hand. There’s artistry in that, and that’s what makes mankind happier. You work out of necessity, but in your work, you gotta have a little artistry too.”

Many people expressed the feeling of not being treated or respected as a full human being, 

“That’s the thing you get in any business. They never talk about personal feelings. They let you know that people are of no consequence.”
“They call us professional people but they talk to us as very young, childishly. They check on us all the time.”
“These big corporations are gonna keep on growing and the people become less and less. The human being doesn’t count any more.”

Even back then, there was an awareness of the threat of technology, of dehumanization.

“You won’t know their names…You have a number - mine’s 407. You’re just an instrument.”
“It was almost like a production line. We adjusted to the machine. The last three or four years were horrible. The computer had arrived….I had no free will. I was just part of the stupid computer.”

As a result, many people felt stuck, like they had little control and few options.

“I don’t know what I’d like to do. That’s what hurts the most. That’s why I can’t quit the job. I really don’t know what talents I may have. And I don’t know where to go to find out.”

Do these themes sound familiar to you? Our needs for feeling effective and fulfilled - for meaning - aren't new. Helping people fulfill those needs is as important as ever.

When you’re looking for your purpose, “Build your way forward”

Even if you’re fortunate, it’s a common pattern. You begin with a sense that you’re meant to do something purposeful, that you’re special. With the passing of time and with each job, however, that sense of specialness fades. It’s replaced by a nagging disappointment or, worse, resignation. I guess that’s all there is. 

That certainly was my own experience. When I was young, I had high hopes but I also had no idea of what I wanted to do. So I simply reacted to whatever presented itself. As I got older, I relied on my experience in my first jobs to advance and make more money. Doing anything different seemed increasingly impossible. How could I start over?

Recently though, I’ve observed a different pattern. It’s one that gives me hope, and is something anyone can implement on their own. The pattern has three stages: Interest, Practice, and Purpose.

1. Interest

The best description I’ve found of how to explore your interests is in Designing Your Life, based on a course taught by two professors at Stanford. They refer to it as “wayfinding.”

“Wayfinding is the ancient art of figuring out where you are going when you don’t actually know your destination. For wayfinding, you need a compass and you need a direction. Not a map - a direction… Since there’s no one destination in life, you can’t put your goal into your GPS and get the turn-by-turn directions for how to get there. What you can do is pay attention to the clues in front of you and make your best way forward.”

Maybe you have an inkling of what you’re interested in. Maybe you took a test and it pointed you in a direction. Then what? What would you do next, and how might you explore other interests that might be even better for you?

“Try reframing the challenge as an exploration of possibilities (instead of trying to solve your problem in one miraculous leap)…The way forward is to reduce the risk (and the fear) of failure by designing a series of small prototypes to test the waters….one of the principles of design thinking is that you want to ‘fail fast and fail forward’ into your next step.”

The book is filled with many examples of such prototypes, and the simplest and easiest one is a conversation with someone doing something related to your interest or goal. If you’re interested in real estate, talk to people already working in different real estate businesses. If you have a hobby you love, seek out and connect with people who’ve developed that into something more. 

2. Practice

Now comes the part most people miss: deliberate practice. The goal of prototyping and experimenting isn’t to get to some finish line. It’s to get you to the next experiment, to help you explore possibilities while you learn and develop new skills. It’s the combination of doing, interacting, and getting feedback that enables you to advance in the direction you’re interested in. 

For example, I’ve always had an interest in writing, yet for decades I didn’t do anything about it. I started by simply reading more, which sparked my curiosity. My first experiment was to write a blog post on my company’s intranet. I was in my 40s. Then I talked with a journalist who encouraged me and gave me constructive criticism and advice. In the first year, I only wrote 6 posts. I struggled, got more feedback, and learned. I began writing once a month, and later wrote my first public post. Writing became a habit, leading to hundreds of blog posts and a book. The skills I developed along the way - and the relationships I developed as I did it - enabled me to discover a new career in my 50s.

“Deliberate practice” isn’t just for one particular skill, it’s for life.

3. Purpose

Angela Duckworth describes the three phases - interest, practice, and purpose - in her bestselling book, Grit. Her research brought her into contact with thousands of accomplished people and she found few “naturally talented” people. 

“The more common sequence is to start out with a relatively self-oriented interest, then learn self-disciplined practice, and, finally, integrate that work with an other-centered purpose.”

It’s that third stage that is perhaps most surprising to me, and I’m only now starting to understand it. It feels like an awakening of some sort. A psychologist interviewed for Grit described the third stage as when “the larger purpose and meaning of work finally becomes apparent.”

Your next step

The way to design your life is to “build your way forward," using a series of prototypes and interactions to enable you to make it through the three stages. For me, Working Out Loud is what helped me explore my interests, and my WOL Circles have helped me to keep practicing, to continue experimenting and connecting and learning until a purpose emerges.

If you’ve ever felt there is a gap between what you do and something that would be more meaningful, the way to bridge that gap is not with a daring leap but with hundreds or even thousands of small steps. Purpose isn’t something you discover or are born with as much as something that emerges from your passion and perseverance. 

I thought work wasn’t supposed to be like this

I still remember a response to one of my earliest posts, one about finding meaning and fulfillment at work. “You’re nuts,” she wrote. “People go to work for money. They go home for meaning and fulfillment.”

I’ve thought about that for years. What if she was right, and I was encouraging people to try anddiscover something that work simply wasn’t designed to offer? How cruel that would be.

Fast forward several years. I’m laying on a yoga mat in an office in a large manufacturing company in Germany. A group of us had worked together for the last three days, and much of it was quite intense. Before my trip, I happened to know that one of them was a yoga instructor. (We were connected on Instagram and other channels, even those of us who barely knew each other.) I half-kiddingly suggested that we have a class after work on Friday. Others responded, and there we were, in a wide array of yoga attire, on our mats among the chairs and flip charts. The class was beautiful, almost spiritual. Afterwards, we hugged each other goodbye.

This kind of connection happened throughout the week. Instead of just small talk in between meetings, we talked about personal aspirations and life experiences. We discovered shared interests as well as new possibilities for how we might collaborate and innovate. By deepening relationships, we changed the very nature of the work we were doing as well as what we might do together in the future.

Oh, and we ate together and laughed. A lot. 

It's true that these particular people are extraordinary. And yet I’ve had similar experiences with other people in other cities in other companies. I’ve observed tremendous generosity and vulnerability, creativity and intelligence, in their work with me as well as with their colleagues. It's those behaviors that lead to meaning and fulfillment.

Once we shed the facade of cool professionalism, we were able to develop a sense of relatedness that opened up all sorts of wonderful possibilities. 

It wasn't just work or just personal. It was human - and it was beautiful.