Meaning at Work in High-Tech

This is in response to a blog post by Dr. Dan Ariely:

Ug.. Unfortunately, this is a common occurrence in the high-tech industry. I know many people (including myself) who have had similar experiences and know the feeling all to well. When I read about the bionicles experiment in The Upside of Irrationality, I instantly identified myself with the participants who were placed in the Sisyphusian condition (the story of the canceled merger + presentation was also classic). It seemed to be a depressingly accurate model of one of the big problems I find at work.

It’s extremely frustrating that management seems to have no understanding of this principle, while it is completely obvious to me and other engineers. When managers take action that will seriously devalue the creative work of their subordinates, they seem to ignore the cost of demotivating their employees (disrespecting them seems more accurate). Although I find it difficult to believe they would systematically repeat this mistake, the other part of the bionicles study confirms how bad most people are at judging the effect of undervalued work. When asked, those surveyed underestimated the effect of the Sisyphusian condition by 70%. Remarkably, the actual effect was 250% more than what people estimated.

Dr. Ariely hypothesizes that this mistake probably stems from the view that motivation to work is best thought of terms of rats in a maze. While there may be some situations where this is applicable, it’s very important for people who do creative work to derive meaning from their jobs. A simple corollary of this is that depriving people of meaning is the best thing you can do to convince them to stop working so hard.

The prevalence of the rat model is reflected in the phrase “rat race”. I find it depressing that people seem to take the comparison for granted i.e. that we are nothing more than rats in a maze. Don’t we think of ourselves more highly than that? A more cynical view is that the rat race refers to the way companies think of their workers as rats in a maze, where simple rewards are the best way to further the interests of the company, rather than thinking of employees as human beings who deserve respect and need meaning in order to perform their best.

I really don’t know if there’s anything that can be done when a company decides to cut a project after people have already made a significant emotional investment. One way to prevent such cuts from being so painful in the first place is to make cuts more predictable. This could be done by setting up an understanding about what cost management is willing to pay to complete the project before any work has been done. If things get to the point where the project cannot continue, at least everyone will know about it ahead of time, and be able to prepare themselves for the inevitable mental anguish. Of course, this arrangement also has its pitfalls. For example, a sense of impending failure and cancellation may come midway through the project, which will weigh heavily on people’s minds for the remainder of the project, possibly resulting in self-fulfilling prophecy. As with all management practices, there’s not formula for implementing this successfully. It requires wisdom and the ability to ward off premature thoughts of failure.

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3 Responses to Meaning at Work in High-Tech

  1. Hi.

    Thanks for sharing. I agree with what you said about the rat race, but unfortunately, I’m almost scared to get my hopes up. I hate hoping for a better future, only to see my dream dashed to pieces, kind of like those Bionicles.

    I guess that we have to be clever about finding opportunities to make life better for ourselves.

    Sincerely, and with thanks,
    Eugene T.S. Wong

  2. allyourcode says:

    Hi Eugene,

    I think there’s a difference between the unexpected cancellation of a project due to a management decision, and when despite our best efforts, we fail to achieve our goals. When management decides to cancel a project, failure to complete the project seems arbitrary, because the decision is out of our hands. The project can be going along quite well, yet you have no power to complete it. That’s what makes it Sisyphusian.

    Failing to achieve our goals through our own efforts can be extremely painful, but I think the pang of futility is much less. Even if our efforts don’t produce the desired result, we can still be proud of the hard work we’ve done. For some people, this only motivates them more.

    For example, suppose you interview with a prestigious company. You know you made a good showing at the interview, but they reject you anyway. In your mind, you can say to yourself, “I know I did a good job. They must have made a mistake; or they had other good candidates, and arbitrarily chose him over me.”. Having performed your best, you go into the next interview with more confidence, and experience, which will probably result in an even better performance.

    A project cancellation is nothing like this. Instead of trying harder next time, you begin to think there’s no point in putting in your best effort vs. just slacking off. After all, someone from above may just decide to cancel the project mid-stream.

    I totally understand what you mean by not wanting to get your hopes up, but you always have to risk failure in order to succeed. If you think you have the skills to reach your dream, you need to do your best to put doubt out of your mind.

    Another thing to think about is “regret minimization”, a concept I learned from Jeff Bezos. If you don’t go for your dreams, how much are you going to regret your decision later? If you try and fail, you won’t have to worry about facing such regrets.


  3. Pingback: Should Companies Experiment? | allyourcode

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