An interview with Miguel Barbosa

August 5, 2010 BY danariely

A few days ago I had a fun interview with Miguel Barbosa.  Miguel just posted the interview on his blog.


Here is one sample question and answer:


Miguel: You touched on my next question which relates to your chapter on meaning.  Tell us about your findings on the importance of meaning in the workplace. What’s your advice for people trying to attach meaning to their jobs?

Dan: I think it’s very hard to have meaning if you are working for someone and don’t have much autonomy.  But the upside is that with a little work we can create work environments that provide people with autonomy and are more likely to lead to feelings of meaningful work. Let me tell you a story that happened to me three weeks ago.

Three weeks ago I was in Seattle where an ex-student of mine who works for a big software company. She contacted me six weeks prior and I agreed to meet with her team. Something happened at that company in the weeks before I gave the talk.  The background being that my student and a small team of people had discovered an idea which they thought was the best innovation in the “computer world.” They worked very hard on this idea for two years and the CEO of the company looked at it and said I’m canceling the project.

So here I was sitting with a group of highly creative people, who were completely deflated- In my life I’ve never seen anyone (in the high-tech industry) with a lower level of motivation. So I asked them, “How many of you show up to work on time since the project has been shut down?” Nobody raised their hand. I asked them, “How many of you go home early?” Everyone raised their hand. Lastly, I asked them, “How many of you feel that you should have taken the opportunity to fudge on your expense reports?” In this case, no one answered the question — rather everyone sat laughing to themselves—in a way that makes me think that they would have fudged their expense reports. So here you have a case of people who worked incredibly hard on a project and basically got rejected. Which leads me to ask how could the CEO have behaved differently if he was also trying to create a more positive feelings for the team members.  So I posed this question to the team and they came up with different answers:

1. They said senior management could have allowed the team to present the project to the entire company.

2. Management could have gone a step further and allowed the team to build a prototype.

3. Management could have taken the time to understand the technology and see the possibilities of applying it to other areas of the firm or product development.

4. They could have asked the team to write about the process of developing the idea.

So there are many approaches senior management could have taken to boost the morale of the research team. But the key is that most ideas for boosting morale require a significant amount of time. If you think of people as rats working in a maze that then there is no reason to help their motivations or explain why you said “No!”. But if you think of people as driven by internal motivation then you want to worry about internal motivation then you might want to spend some time and effort increasing internal motivation. That is something the executive did not do, and I suspect that because of this the research team will eventually dissolve.


If you want to read more, here is a link to Miguel’s blog