What makes us feel good about our work?

Melissa Moore  |  
Sr. Vice President & Chief People Officer, Mattersight Corporation
Melissa Moore

I am a huge Dan Ariely fan. I’ve read his books. I’ve completed his Coursera class, “A Beginner’s Guide to Irrational Behavior.” I’ve watched his Ted Talks and I’ve listened to his podcasts. He encourages me to look at challenges from a different perspective. And right now, one of the challenges I’m looking to master is positive motivation.  


In his Ted Talk, “What makes us feel good about our work?” Ariely theorizes about the IKEA effect; when we buy and assemble IKEA furniture ourselves, we tend to like those pieces of furniture better; the greater the effort, the more ownership. He shares a great story about the history of boxed cake mixes. When cake mix first became popular in the ‘40s, it was a simple powder containing all of the ingredients, just requiring you add water.  Simple steps: pour in a bowl, add water, stir, put in the oven. It turns out they were initially very unpopular even though they tasted great!  What the companies figured out, in Dan’s words, was that there was not enough effort involved from the housewives (forgive the stereotype!), so it didn’t feel like their own. It wasn’t the product of their work.  

So what happened? The box cake mix companies took the eggs and the milk out of the powder so that the eggs had to be broken into the mix and the milk measured, added, mixed. Now, it was “my” cake—you had to make it more yourself.  Subsequently, the mix’s popularity increased. Dan’s point is that by getting people to work harder, they actually love what they are doing to a higher degree—that’s positive motivation.

 Mixing Bowl

From a leadership perspective, I’ve traditionally thought about motivation as people’s reward and recognition infrastructure. You motivate by creating a reward for someone to work towards and/or recognize efforts so that the desire to get that recognition again and again, drives future behavior. Research from Dan and others show that we do not operate by simple rules of reward. I hadn’t considered backing up to the early stages of the project or task and addressing additional elements of meaning, creation, challenge, ownership, identity, and pride (again, thank you Dan). You must tap all of these elements to motivate.  This is sending me back to the drawing board, and in some ways, it will be more difficult to create the infrastructure; in other ways, it will become easier due to a higher level of ownership and the resulting positive motivation.   


Melissa Moore – Sr. Vice President & Chief People Officer at Mattersight Corporation



Melissa Moore