Contra-Free Loading

Why Do People Want to Do Good Work?

Reading the book, the The Upside of Irrationality by Dan Ariely, I was struck by Chapter 2, The Meaning of Labor.  This chapter discusses what motivates people to do good work.  He references three examples of people or animals motivated or de-motivated to do perform good work based on the perceived use of the work once it was completed.  For example, he describes one experiment he performs using a simple paper puzzle and a cash reward.

Test subjects were paid a reducing-sliding-scale rate for each puzzle page they completed.  The work was a bit tedious (finding in a page covered with letters, two letter ‘S’ adjacent to each other).  The first page successfully completed was paid $0.55, the next $0.50, until the twelfth page when any further pages completed would be done for free.  Divided into three groups, one group’s pages were acknowledged, another had their pages barely acknowledged and the third had their pages immediately shredded (the author’s video blog is available here for those interested in the details).

The conclusion of the experiment?  People are motivated by meaning in their work.  This has also been found in the animal kingdom.  Ariely references the work of psychologist Glen Jensen who coined the term ‘contrafreeloading‘ which basically means that ‘many animals prefer to earn food rather than simply eating identical but freely accessible food’ (p. 60, The Upside of Irrationality).

Not really an earth-shattering conclusion but interesting that there is some empirical evidence to prove it.  This is of interest because of the underlying philosophical debate of whether people are inherently lazy and seek to maximize their own economic well being or whether they are inherently good and therefore will contribute to the well being of the community in which they live.

This experiment must also be considered in the larger context of the human condition.  For example what would be the behaviour of an individual in the experiment if he or she felt that she was entitled to a reward and it was withheld because of poor performance?  Or how is behavior changed when it is monitored in an anonymous crowd rather than in an individual setting?  Finally, are their cultural or social-demographic variables that may change the experiment?  For example, would a hungry and desperate person be more willing to see their work shredded if it meant not going hungry?

Setting these further experimentation ideas aside, what does this result mean for organizations?  I would suggest that it once again identifies the importance of linking vision to strategy and strategy to an individual’s work.  People are motivated by the larger good the organization can provide to the community.  Work matters and is important and it is incumbent on organizations to help workers, volunteers and stakeholders make the link.

These are ideas I hope to explore in future posts and pages.

2 thoughts on “Contra-Free Loading

  1. Frank – I think you should be in HR! Just spent two days at a conference talking about leadership – I could go on and on re leadership, motivation, and the value of work. This is probably not the forum to do that! We should have coffee!

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