• Opinion: What the IKEA effect can teach managers about staff feedback

  • 9 Feb 2016
  • Comments 4 comments

Susanne Jacobs says something as simple as recognising effort can have a huge impact on engagement

I was doing some consultancy work with a great team last week but they were feeling pretty miserable. They told me: “We are trying so hard but nothing is ever good enough.”

To them it seemed that whatever they did their effort was ignored, while instead their managers chose to criticise them for failing to meet one of the hundreds of service level agreements or another target that was perceived to be unreasonable. 

In my opinion, managers ignore employee effort at their peril. It risks staff engagement and performance. But why?

Well, have you ever tried to put together a flat pack piece of furniture? It’s a frustrating process matching the correct As to the Bs with Ds dowels, while no one seems to know what happened to C.

It’s likely that these finished pieces are not the most expensive you own but you probably treasure them because you built them. Your frustration, sweat and maybe even tears created a structure that may not be beautiful but it is loved. The resultant pride and reward when we look at our creation comes from the effort we exerted.

Dan Ariely, professor of psychology and behavioural economics has called this the IKEA effect.

As part of his research he studies effort and the impact on motivation. In one experiment he gave origami novices instructions and paper to fold into a relatively ugly form.

He then asked each of them how much they would pay for their work and asked the same question of those who had watched the work.

He then ran the same experiment but this time didn’t provide the instructions, the result a harder test and an even uglier product.

In the first experiment the origami creators said they would pay around five times more than those that had simply watched them create the end result. In the second experiment this gap was exaggerated with the creators valuing the even uglier products of their labour higher while the observers dropped their valuation.

The conclusion is that the value we place on our work is directly aligned to the effort we put in and we expect others to value it in the same way. 

Now imagine you have carried out a piece of work on which you have taken time conscientiously researching the facts and deliberating over the findings. You hand the report to your boss who does not look at it and places it on a pile without comment. A short while after you get back the report on your desk covered in red pen with corrections. How do you feel?

Let’s rewind and replay the scene. You hand in the report and your boss looks at it, thanks you and remarks that she can see the effort you have taken. She says that she will read it through over the next couple of days and get back to you with her thoughts so that you can discuss it. Instead of getting the report back adorned in red your boss asks you to pop into her office. She again remarks on the effort you have taken. She runs through some thoughts she has to make it even stronger. How do you feel now?

Now think about how you would feel if you were in the team I was working with recently.

Ariely has some good advice for managers: “Ignoring the performance of people is almost as bad as shredding their effort before their eyes. The good news is that adding motivation doesn’t seem to be so difficult. The bad news is that eliminating motivation seems to be incredibly easy.”


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Comments (4)
  • It makes sense, but why slag off IKEA? Is it a sign of our times to have a go at a largely well-respected organisation that gives many access to well-designed, affordable goods: probably precisely what Ariely had in mind. His argument is sound, his example is wrong.

  • This is about being a good, motivational manager who realises that although it takes more time, effort and patience to coach staff in this way, it pays dividends for the employee, the team and ultimately the business (and also for you as the manager of what will be a high-performing team, with luck). So as explained here, there are good business reasons for this approach, even if the softer skills don't come naturally! You would think it was common sense, but often such skills need to be learned. Unfortunately, still too many managers don't get any real training or coaching themselves, and are assumed to be competent line managers just because they have been put in a managerial position.

  • Isn't this just about being an all round nice human being - where have the soft behavioural skills gone? We are so concerned with competencies that we forget that people are made of other stuff.

  • Nice piece. Don't you just love Dan Ariely! Thank you for sharing this.