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Man’s search for Lego


One of the joys of being a parent is that you get to re-live your childhood and, in particular, play with a lot of toys. My favourite toy when I was a child – and, fortunately, my son’s favourite toy now – is Lego and I can happily spend hours building the most complex models, scrabbling around on my hands and knees, looking for the one tiny brick which I’ve misplaced and which completes the whole kit.

I was reminded of this when I came across an interesting research paper called “Man’s Search for Meaning: The Case for Legos”. The researchers conducted an experiment where they asked two groups of people to build Lego models. For one group, the completed models were placed on display while for the other group the models were disassembled in front of them and the pieces returned so they could build further models. What they found will probably surprise no one: the latter of those two groups built about 30% fewer models than the former. They felt the work was pointless and, regardless of what they were paid to do it, they didn’t match productivity of the first group, who thought there was some meaning in what they did.

It’s hardly a new finding: the title of the article itself is a play on Victor Frankl’s brilliant autobiography, “Man’s Search For Meaning” in which he outlined his finding that a key driver for mankind is the search for meaning in our lives. You’ve probably heard the old cliché about two builders: they’re both asked what they’re doing and one replies that he’s digging a ditch whilst the other says he’s building a beautiful cathedral. It’s a story echoed by the apocryphal story of Nixon’s visit to NASA, where he is supposed to have encountered a cleaner who described his job as “helping to put a man on the moon.”

A model I use to help managers understand how to work with their teams is one called the 4Cs – Context, Contribution, Coaching and Completion: Context and Completion are concerned with providing some form of meaning and sense of progress in the work that people do. Without this, paraphrasing a quote in the wonderful “Leadership Challenge” by Kouzes and Posner, life becomes “an endless series of Wednesdays”. Work is reduced to the Sisyphean task of endlessly rolling a boulder up a hill but never quite tipping it over the top.

As you go about your business this week, ask yourself what progress you’ve made; if you have made progress, is it progress towards a goal that matters to you? If you’re a manager, have you helped your team feel they’ve made progress towards achieving something important? If the answer to any of those questions is no, you might want to think about the implications for the quality of your/their work and, more importantly, the quality of your/their life.

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