Why Emotionally Intelligent Leaders Embrace the IKEA Effect to Engage and Inspire Their Employees

In the early 1950s, the pioneering motivation researcher Ernest Dichter told General Mills to stop using powdered eggs in their Betty Crocker cake mixes and have homemakers use fresh eggs instead.

Why? Taste mattered, but so did the underlying psychology. Cracking a few eggs and spooning in a little vegetable oil made the cake maker feel more engaged. More skilled. More invested in the process. 

And therefore the outcome.

The result is what a 2011 study published by Harvard Business School called The IKEA Effect: The idea that “labor alone can be sufficient to induce greater liking for the fruits of one’s labor.” That people assign “significantly more value to objects they imagined, created, or assembled.” That people view what they create or build as “similar in value to the creations of experts, and expect other people to share their opinions.”

In simple terms, that if I am part of the process, I’ll think the end result is better — regardless of the objective quality of that end result.

That Malm dresser I assembled? Objectively, it’s just slabs of press wood and veneer held together by dowels and bolt locks.

But I put it together: So even though the drawers are a little wobbly and I have to lift one slightly to make it close all the way, my dresser kicks ass.

Plenty of businesses hope to harness the IKEA Effect, and for good reason. Avoid the time and cost of providing a turn-key solution by having me finish the job — yet somehow leave me feeling like I received even greater value my money? 

That’s a pretty cool trick. 

But, as with employing many other cognitive biases to your own ends, this one feels a little manipulative.

Fortunately, there’s a better use of the the IKEA Effect.

Oddly enough, one that involves your employees.

I Care When It’s “Mine”

When I was a machine operator, a consultant watched us for a few hours, took a bunch of notes, and gave us step-by-step instructions to more quickly change machine setups from one job to the next.

Some of his ideas weren’t bad. Some sounded great in theory but were terrible in practice. Others didn’t work because they created more rather than less bottlenecks. 

But mostly? We didn’t want someone to telling us what to do — and we didn’t really care about the outcome? (Okay, we did care: Because he wasn’t one of us, we kind of hoped his ideas would suck.) 

And just as importantly, we didn’t want a “just add water” job changeover mix. We wanted to crack some eggs. We wanted to add some oil. 

We wanted to put the process together ourselves.

So our boss got us together and told us he had been tasked with cutting job changeover times by 30 percent. Clearly the consultant didn’t have all the answers. He didn’t have all the answers. 

Two weeks later we had cut changeover times by 40 percent. Sure, we incorporated some o of the consultant’s ideas, as well as our boss’s. And then we added the fruits of our labor: Our ideas. Our experiments. Our trials, and our errors. We valued our ideas and efforts more because they were ours. 

We felt more engaged. More skilled.

And a lot more invested in the outcome.

Want your employees to do more, and yet somehow feel good about it — and just as importantly, feel good about themselves?

Embrace the power of the IKEA Effect by letting them contribute in a meaningful way. By letting them imagine, create, or assemble new strategies or processes.

By turning an instant cake mix into a more general recipe that then allows for creativity, innovation, and modification.

Because we all care the most when something is “ours.” We care the most when we feel we have the responsibility and authority to not just do what we’re told, but to do what is right.

Good leaders establish standards and guidelines and then give their employees the autonomy and independence to work the way they work best within those guidelines.

Great leaders allow their employees to turn “have to” into “want to,” because that transforms a job into something much more meaningful: an outward expression of each person’s unique skills, talents, and experiences.

If that’s not harnessing the power of the IKEA Effect in a positive way, nothing is.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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