The Meaning of Meaning

Some people hate buying IKEA furniture because you have to assemble it yourself, and some love it, for the same reason. I’m part of the latter group, I could spend days going to IKEA, buy stuff, and then assemble it. I’m always happy because I feel I have accomplished something – all by myself! (It may also have to do with my growing up with at least a quarterly visit to IKEA with my parents who in addition did, and still do, all handy work in the house themselves.)

Dan Ariely on the other hand does not enjoy assembling IKEA furniture. But, even if the process in itself is not Dan’s favourite cup of tea, he claims he likes his IKEA furniture better because it is he who has assembled it, and not someone else. Somehow, by doing something himself, it becomes more meaningful. He then goes on to describe a lot of experiments about how people who carry out very monotonous tasks go on doing this with a smile, provided the work has some type of meaning to them.

It seems that just getting money for something, doesn’t give the same amount of meaning to someone as for example receiving recognition for it from others. People who get no recognition for boring work, and only money, tire faster of the task. It’s true for work, but just try a similar thing on kids, it will give you an instant feel for how human motivation works:

“Mummy/Daddy, look what I did!”
“That’s really nice!” or “That must have been a lot of work, how did you do it?” works much better than “Oh, go make another one will you, I have to make dinner.”

“Give me a break” , you might say, grown ups should be able to cope without constant recognition and holding hands, they should know better than to whine about emotions. Well, in one sense yes, but still, we are all human, and humans seem to work better in certain circumstances than others.

The theory of meaning was taken quite a serious step further by an Austrian neurologist,Viktor Frankl. After his experience in concentration camps during the Second World War, he concluded that the prisoners who had found a meaning in life, while in the concentration camps, were more likely to survive than those who had not.

To go back to a more everyday application of all this, who has not had tasks at work that feel completely unimportant and useless? Who has not wondered what on earth this particular report could be useful for? And who hasn’t worked on one of those reports until late at night because it is really urgent and important, just to learn the next morning that, finally, nobody will look at it as it’s not going to be used after all?

At my first position after university, as a project assistant in an enormous consulting firm, I was lucky enough to stumble over a team of people who rendered the (frankly pretty dull) work I was assigned really interesting and motivating, by explaining the big picture that this tiny task would be a part of, and who said “great” and “thank you”, when I had finished.

They were wonderful people and I had a good time working there, but I soon heard about a “better” position at another firm, and decided to move. This new position did indeed look better on the CV, and did act as a springboard to go further, but with a few not so good side effects. At the new office, everyone was on their own, and no explanations nor appreciation were given to the juniors. Working late nights suddenly became a chore, rather than something you wanted to do to get the project going the right way. As time went by, my self esteem and motivation trickled away and when the opportunity to leave the position for something else presented itself, I did not hesitate.

The importance of motivating people around us from an emotional perspective is something to remember both when we work with others and when we manage people. It does not take more time to render a task meaningful to those having to do it (and say thank you), than to review or even redo work which has been poorly performed because of lack of motivation.

Over time, as I have worked my way around the world, I have become more and more attached to the idea of motivation and motivating others. If people around me seem to lose punch and wonder why we should be doing what we are doing, I will at least try to put up a smile and find a good reason. It always seems to help, and at least it creates cohesion in the team. I also make an effort to take time to explain things, instead of just changing what has been done, if someone asks me to review something they have come up with. There is nothing as motivating as seeing the “aha” light up someone’s face, and then see them go back to work to use what they’ve just learnt.*

People find motivation in different things. Some do work for money, but a lot of people also work if they feel that what they do is something they can be proud of, that it makes a difference, serves a purpose, or is appreciated by others. I, apparently, find meaning in assembling IKEA furniture because I feel that I accomplish something, and motivating others because — because I like being a guru? No, because I like it when people feel they grow and learn new things.

What’s meaningful to you?

*I make a disclaimer for my role as a mother, where I consider that I fail miserably at applying either.
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