What Lego robots can teach us about motivating teams

People crave meaningful work, yet managers can so easily make it all seem futile.

by Caroline Boyd
Last Updated: 24 Jul 2020

In professor of psychology and behavioural economics Dan Ariely’s famous 2013 TED talk, he brilliantly describes an experiment he and his research colleagues performed to investigate productivity at work.

Two groups of randomly chosen individuals were enrolled to build simple Lego robots in exchange for a few dollars for each one completed.  

The Lego robots built by Group 1 (the meaningful condition) were carefully placed under the researcher’s table and the participants were then sent to build the next one.  

The Lego robots built by Group 2 (the meaningless condition) were dismantled in front of the participants as each one was presented to the researcher, with the Lego given back to the individual to build the next one.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, productivity was hit hard. Group 2 participants averaged just seven robots to Group 1’s average of 11 robots.

Seeing their work dismantled in front of them was demoralising. It may only have been a mildly intriguing research experiment but they took it seriously. This was true even when the individual’s love of Lego building was factored in – it seemed that the removal of even a small amount of meaning also removed the inherent joy.

What does this tell us and why is it so relevant now?

We give work our all when we care about it.  We care about the challenge, we care about creating something, we care about being part of something bigger than us.  

Yet how much of our work feels futile? How often do we spend hours on a project or presentation that never goes anywhere or is never used? How often are our efforts not acknowledged? How often are our own Lego robots dismantled right in front of us?

The last few months have seen a need for companies to focus on the things that really matter, to prioritise ruthlessly and to find ways to keep the business running.  

The downside of this has been that many individuals have seen their focus narrowed, their connection with the bigger picture lacking and their affinity with their colleagues diluted.

So what can managers do to amplify meaning?

1. The big picture matters. Explicitly reconnect your team to their part in the broader mission and vision of the organisation. Help individuals recognise how their day-to-day work is making a difference overall.

2. Progress matters. Find ways to recognise and mark the progress that individuals are making on a day-to-day basis. Use check-ins to highlight achievements no matter how small and review goals to ensure they remain relevant.

3. Connection matters. Reinforce the sense of belonging within the team and demonstrate the role that each person plays in its broader success. Find opportunities for teammates to work together and grab every opportunity for conversations within the team that go beyond day-to-day tasks.

Creating meaning is harder when we’re not together in an office, yet it matters more than ever. It may well be uncomfortable but ask yourself: How much of what you are asking your team to do might feel futile to them right now, and what can you do to help them rediscover a sense of meaning? 

Caroline Boyd is director of management development company themanagerhub.com

Image credit: Thomas Cooper/Getty Images

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