Recently I was reading an article called “Happiness Traps” in the latest issue of the Harvard Business Review, I came across a reference to this study from Duke University Business School. It got me thinking about my own experiences first as a software engineer, then as a CEO and board director. But even before that in a summer job on a farm. While mostly a very interesting experience, even 40 years later, I remember one terrible day where we had to remove cornstalks from a soybean field in 100 degree heat. What made it terrible is we had no explanation of why this was useful to the farm, so it was pure drudgery.
On the other hand, long ago when I actually wrote software, I remember being energized by what I thought the customers would be able to do better or faster with the software I was writing. Even though I was practically a founder of our startup and might earn a lot of money from my stock if the company was successful, that was never in my mind as I was designing software or writing code and was never really a source of motivation for my dedication or work ethic.
To summarize the study, people were given an assignment to build as many Lego structures as they could in return for a small monetary award for each structure completed. For half of the people, when a structure was finished, it was set aside where it remained visible. For the other half, when a structure was finished, it was disassembled. Even though the monetary awards were exactly the same, the first group completed over 50% more structures than the second group.
This is what I have personally experienced throughout my career, first as an engineer, then as a CEO and board director. I have always been energized by the mission of the companies with which I have been involved, in whatever way we were improving the customer’s business or the lives of the users of our products. The potential financial rewards have never been foremost, nor even close to foremost, in my mind. It has also been my experience that the mission is what motivates most employees and fosters a sense of collaboration and a healthy culture.