Legos – The Secret of Organizational Culture

Did you play with Legos as a kid?  I grew up with those multi-colored blocks carelessly scattered around as my siblings and I took them from room to room in our endless youthful playtimes.  Those plastic building block toys have been entertaining children for generations.  

However, did you know that Legos hold the secret to understanding why some organizations develop strong dynamic cultures while the majority of others flounder?

The Experiment

As described in his paper, Man’s search for meaning: The case of Legos, behavioral economist Dan Ariely ran an experiment to show how the design of work tasks impacts motivation.  In the experiment, the participants were asked to build characters from Lego’s Bionicle series under one of two conditions, either “Meaningful” or “Sisyphus.” In both conditions, participants received $3 for the first one built, $2.70 for the second, and so on.  In the “Meaningful” condition, the assembled Bionicles were stored and only disassembled at the end of the experiment. In the “Sisyphus” condition, the Bionicles were immediately disassembled when turned in.  Just like the mythical character, Ariel described this latter condition as “an endless cycle of them building and we destroying in front of their eyes.”  

Given that the monetary rewards were the same in both conditions, classic economics assumes there would be no difference between the groups. The results told otherwise.  The “Meaningful” group made on average 11 Bionicles, while the “Sisyphus” group averaged only 7. Ariely’s conclusion was that seeing the results of their labor motivated the “Meaningful” participants.  The “Sisyphus” group motivation was diminished each time their creations were destroyed.

Few of us grow up to be Lego Master Builders, so what does this experiment say about our own workplaces and jobs?  It appears to demonstrate the design of work is vital to supporting motivation. Seeing the results of labor makes a significant difference to the commitment level of the workforce.  Extended further, it provides clues on the factors that lead to strong organizational culture.

Defining Culture

Culture is a word with many meanings.  Merriam Webster provides at least ten different ways to define it.  For purposes of this article, I will refer to culture based on the model set out by Tim Kight from Focus 3, a consulting firm.  He defines the culture of a group as a set of common beliefs, leading to acceptable behaviors, that are designed to deliver a desired experience within the group and to outsiders.  Groups that are in high agreement on these three factors have a strong culture.

Total Motivation

Neel Doshi and Lindsay McGregor in their book, Primed to Perform: How to Build the Highest Performing Cultures Through the Science of Total Motivation, stress the importance of culture to an organization’s success.  They believe that organizations should devote as much energy and attention towards building culture as they do towards their financial and strategic plans.  

Strong cultures drive personal and team motivation.  Motivation in turn drives adaptability, which is the ability to adjust on the fly in order to achieve the organization’s objectives.  Doshi and McGregor believe through their research that an organization’s ability to constantly adapt determines its ongoing survival and success.  Therefore, the need to a strong culture is vital.

Doshi and McGregor highlight six factors that determine overall motivation at work.  Three factors are positive and three are negative.

The negative motivators in order of strength are:

  • Inertia – measures employee’s loss of interest and excitement about their work
  • Economic Pressure – measures employee’s concerns about the level of pay and benefits
  • Emotional Pressure – measures the psychological safety of the workplace

Positive motivators in order of strength are:

  • Play – measures the ability to have fun on the job and the latitude for individuals to shape their work
  • Purpose – measures the alignment between the employee’s values and that of the organization
  • Potential – measures the opportunities for employees to learn and develop on the job

Doshi and McGregor state: “Play, purpose, and potential strengthen performance. Emotional pressure, economic pressure, and inertia weaken it. When a culture maximizes the first three and minimizes the last three, it has achieved the highest levels of a phenomenon called total motivation (also known as ToMo).

The Power of Legos

This brings us back to the power of Legos.  First sold in 1949, they remain popular because play, purpose, and potential are contained in the DNA of the product.  When receiving a Lego set, there is the potential in the endless possibilities for design and the challenge building for complex sets.  A Lego set has a built-in purpose as most people buy ones that connect to their personal interests, whether it is creating space ships, iconic buildings, or magical castles.  Of course, the ultimate purpose of Legos is their playful role as toys. They can be endlessly reassembled to create new designs, or in the case of more complex sets, built to display for everyone to admire the finished work.  

So with this knowledge in hand, what are you going to build at work today?  Perhaps more importantly, how are you going to design your work tasks to maximize motivation?  Happy building!