I recently watched a TedTalk1 worth sharing. In it, Dan Ariely, a behavioral economist, examines how people value and are motivated by their efforts. No one likes to waste time. So it makes sense that we aren’t motivated to perform tasks that don’t carry much value.
But what happens in an organization when teams spend months completing a significant project – but then it’s canceled? What if they spend massive time and effort on a project proposal that completely flops – even though there were great efforts and the right focus all the way around? Let’s face it – it shouldn’t happen, but sometimes it does.
Well apparently, moments like these can help make or break teams. Because moments like these can be significant de-motivators in the psychology of work. More significant than we think.
To understand these outcomes, Ariely and his team conducted a range of experiments around the meaning of work. Some involved having people build Lego® structures – and then immediately break them down over and over again. Other aspects of his studies involved speaking with an actual technology team whose work had been canceled after months of preparation. The team was distressed. More team members came in late and were not as engaged. He got a sense that some may even be at risk for unethical behaviors.
Some actions leaders can take to counter – even turn canceled projects into motivating experiences – might include asking teams to consider which aspect of their innovation could fit in with other parts of the organization. In addition, leaders can encourage teams to learn how canceled projects can inform future ones.
Ariely’s studies also teach us that individuals value their work more as its level of complexity increases. If you would like to see the entire presentation, you can find it at: http://www.ted.com/talks/dan_ariely_what_makes_us_feel_good_about_our_work.html.
 Ariely, D. Ted. What Makes Us Feel Good About Our Work. Available at http://www.ted.com/talks/dan_ariely_what_makes_us_feel_good_about_our_work.html. Accessed on August 1, 2013.