One of the top reasons why people work is the feeling that what they’re doing matters, that it’s making a difference and it counts for something. 

In business, that feeling of value is related to trust – our colleagues are trusting us and our leaders to make sure that their work means something. 

I’ve been reading an excellent book called The Upside of Irrationality by Dan Ariely lately and it’s got some great insights into how to measure your work. 

In the book and in this interview on NPR he describes a test designed to measure how long you’ll keep adding value if the trust isn’t there. 

How many robots will you build?

 In the test, people were set the task of building a LEGO robot and after they completed it, they were asked if they’d like to build another. 

You received a payment for each one that went down exponentially with the more you made. 

In one case, the robot that was built was placed to the side. 

In the other case, if you said you’d like to build another they disassembled the robot right in front of you, gave you back the pieces and said ‘ok, build another one’. 

…you can probably guess the results.

 Despite the payments for each case being equal, those in the second case stopped creating robots much sooner. 

If people don’t see the work they do creating value, they won’t be motivated to continue working. 

Taking the meaning out of someone’s work

 As I read about this test I wondered how we can drain meaning from people’s work by disassembling their robots in front of them and how big a trust issue that is. 

For example, cancelling a project at the last minute, working on an approach and having to make compromises that undermine its value or working on something that you believe is the wrong thing to do. 

One way to avoid this is to remove uncertainty because uncertainty degrades trust. Fuzzy, generic strategies, ones that are hard to understand and ones that are seemingly identical across the board lend themselves to this strategic black hole effect where people don’t know how their work matters and that can become demotivating.

Making the value known

It’s often tempting to think because something is clear to me, it’s clear to you but people need the dots connected to see how what they do specifically supports the overall strategy, so there’s meaning for them and they’re not putting robots on a conveyor belt for some unknown purpose. 

If you can help people understand how the business works and how their work helps move it forward that will build trust, create motivation, enable them to make better decisions and add more value themselves.