Employers can improve engagement and productivity by promoting competition, completion and “a sense of meaning” in the work they provide, says psychologist Dan Ariely in a recent article.

In a video on Inside Employees’ Minds – a new joint project between Mercer and ideas collaboration website Big Think, he says many employers “have this idea that people work for money, and in fact we think that people don’t want to work; that all we want to do as human beings is sit on the beach and drink margaritas”.

“Sadly, [they think] we don’t have enough resources to do that, so we work so we can get enough money to drink margaritas.

But this isn’t the way to think about human motivation, he says.

Ariely, who writes and speaks regularly on behavioral economics, offers as an example the experience of mountain climbing, during which people are “filled with nothing but misery and frostbite and pain”, but don’t regret the endeavour when it’s over.

“In fact, people reminisce about it; it gives meaning to their lives. When they heal, they want to go up again.”

Work fits in the same category, Ariely says. “Sure, we care about money and it’s nice to get paid, but there’s also a whole range of other things that we get. A need for achievement, and completion, competition with other people, a sense of progress, and a sense of meaning… all of those things really, really matter.”

As the nature of work changes, and interweaves more closely with life, “the relative importance of money is getting smaller and the relative importance of those other things could get much larger”.

The problem is that often, employers don’t understand this, he says

On visiting a software company that had just cancelled a project on which employees had worked the past two years, he found the workers “completely miserable”, even though they now could work fewer hours.

In cancelling the project, the CEO “did not take into account their motivation and meaning and what they really cared about, and in doing so he basically deflated them. They were completely uninterested in what they were doing from that moment on”.

So the lessons for employers, Ariely says, are to “recognise how important meaning, completion, motivation and competition are in getting people to care and to work hard… to try and encourage those and… don’t undercut those human motivations”.

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