Building better work – the IKEA Effect


Building better work

Most us will have experience of self-assembling something. You can buy ‘flat pack’ kits to build almost anything, ranging from houses and cars to bookshelves and desks. For some it can be a joy, for others (myself included) it can sometimes be a bit of a struggle.

But what can our experiences of self-assembly teach us about work? It turns out that the role we play in constructing something, changes our relationship with it.

Ultimately, we value what we build.

The IKEA effect

Researchers, Michael Norton, Daniel Mochon and Dan Ariely were curious about whether building an item influenced peoples’ perceptions of its value.

In their initial study [1] they randomly assigned participants to “builders” or “inspectors”. Builders were asked to assemble a plain black cardboard box from IKEA (the Kassett Storage box for those interested) using standard instructions. Inspectors were given a ready-made box and had the opportunity to examine it.

At the end of the study, participants would have been holding identical boxes. The only difference being that for half the group, they would have played a part in putting the box together.

Before the study finished participants were asked to place a bid on the box. They were also asked to rate how much they liked the box.

Builders bid significantly more than inspectors and their ratings of how much they liked the box were higher too. The researchers coined the term the “Ikea effect” to refer to the phenomenon of people placing additional value on items that they have played a part in constructing compared with ready-built goods and services.

Although this study was relatively modest in size, the IKEA effect has been found to be present in a number of subsequent and preceding studies involving items such as origami, lego, custom designed clothing and even lottery tickets [2].

The psychological factors at play

Intuitively, the IKEA effect makes sense. We may all have experienced an attachment to, or affection for, a self-assembled item of furniture. In my case this is often even more surprising because they tend to be poorly constructed.

Economists have known for some time that the more effort people put into the pursuit of something, the more they tend to value it. So a partial explanation of the IKEA effect might simply be that the effort invested transfers, or rubs off, in terms of an apparent greater attachment.

Another explanation relates to control and effectiveness. By building something people are able to control and shape elements of their environment and in doing so are also able to demonstrate competence to themselves and others in terms of what they have built. 

Building better work – ideas to harness the IKEA effect at work

The IKEA effect demonstrates that people value what they build. We can harness this principle in the workplace.

Here are three ideas of how we might be able to encourage and enable the IKEA effect.

1.   Allow people to shape elements of their work - don’t ‘ready-assemble’ jobs.

In terms of job design, team leaders are often asked to develop elaborate job descriptions which provide no space or opportunity for people to shape their roles. Effectively we are doing the equivalent of presenting people with “ready-assembled” jobs. Whilst we are doing this with the best of intentions (to make life easier, clearer and better defined for our colleagues) we might be inadvertently impacting on how much people come to value the work they are doing.

 An alternative would be to create opportunities for individuals and teams to determine for themselves the way to undertake their jobs, giving them some freedom and control over how their work is done. Rather than tell someone to do work in a certain way, reframe the focus around the outcome that is needed and let them decide the best way to achieve this.

 2.   Co-create key goals and strategy. 

We should apply the idea of self-assembly as much to our goals and strategies as we do to our physical tasks. The IKEA effect would suggest that people will value the strategies, visions, missions and goals which they have played a part in building more than those which have been presented to them “ready-made.” Yet these decisions tend to be made by small executive groups, often in isolation from the wider workforce.

Rather than simply present the next strategic direction or key initiative as something that has been pre-determined, find ways to harness peoples’ inputs, thoughts and ideas as part of the process.

 3.   Be careful what you remove.

We should be curious and potentially cautious about assuming that removing tasks and making aspects of our work easier will make it more enjoyable. On the face of it, streamlining or stopping certain activities will make our working life more manageable and less stressful. Yet removing opportunities to build aspects of our work might have a potentially negative influence on our overall levels of satisfaction.

Whilst potentially counterintuitive, researchers have indeed found that in some circumstances reducing certain job demands can actually also reduce people’s overall engagement and enjoyment [3]. And this phenomenon has been observed by food manufacturers too [4].

People value what they build

People value what they build. And this applies as much to our work as it does to our flat-pack book shelves and tables.

It is tempting in our rush for efficiency and effectiveness to create pre-assembled solutions and present ready-made decisions for the people we work with. Yet this pursuit, whilst well intentioned, might have a negative impact on the value and worth that people place on the work they do.

If we are curious and committed to building better work then we need to create opportunities for people to put their physical and emotional fingerprints on the work they do.

Norton, M. I., Mochon, D., & Ariely, D. (2012). The IKEA effect: When labor leads to love. Journal of consumer psychology22(3), 453-460..

2 For studies on origami and lego see Norton, M. I., Mochon, D., & Ariely, D. (2012). The IKEA effect: When labor leads to love. Journal of consumer psychology22(3), 453-460.

For the lottery ticket study Bar-Hillel, M., & Neter, E. (1996). Why are people reluctant to exchange lottery tickets? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70, 17–27.

Petrou, P., Demerouti, E., Peeters, M. C., Schaufeli, W. B., & Hetland, J. (2012). Crafting a job on a daily basis: Contextual correlates and the link to work engagement. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 33(8), 1120-1141.

4 When instant cake mixes were first introduced into the US, households were initially slow to use them. Through further exploration the cake manufacturers found that the mixes were felt to make cooking too easy which ultimately made the effort and resulting cake undervalued. The answer was to amend the recipe requiring an egg to be added. Whilst there are potentially a large number of reasons why this amendment led to greater subsequent adoption, adding labour (the egg) appeared to be a vital ingredient. It felt more like baking. See: http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20171027-the-magic-cakes-that-come-from-a-packet

Positive universities: bring passion and optimism but don’t forget the purpose.

Positive universities: bring passion and optimism but don’t forget the purpose.
  • What would be happen if in addition to earnings, employability and academic attainment, we also measured the legacy of higher education in terms of a graduate’s wellbeing?
  • What would a flourishing university mean for staff and students?
  • What would a Positive University look and feel like?

From last Friday’s International Positive Education Network (IPEN) conference it is clear that leaders at the highest levels in higher education, public health and economic policy, joined by world-leading scholars and public policy shapers are both curious and serious about exploring these questions.

And so they should be.

Creating a tailored approach to work


The personalisation of goods, services and activities appears to becoming ever more prevalent and popular. From the comfort of your sofa, you can now personalise your trainers, order made-to-measure clothes and even add your own lable to chocolate and hazelnut spread.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the possibilities for greater personalisation spilled over to the world of work? Where rather than being asked to fulfil a specific job, task or activity, you were encouraged to tailor and tweak aspects of your role based on your personal strengths, passions and interests.

I have been exploring this concept with organisations through my job crafting workshops. Job crafting enables employees to take a more personal approach to their work. I discovered job crafting through my Masters studies at the wonderful Centre of Positive Psychology at the University of Melbourne and it became the focus of my capstone research.

Job crafting is a process where employees actively change or tailor how they approach, undertake or think about their work to better suit their own personal strengths, preferences and interests. The concept was first outlined by Amy Wrzesniewski and Jane Dutton in a 2001 research paper and studies within the field have been steadily growing.

I was drawn to job crafting as research has shown that job crafting behaviour is related to a number of positive outcomes for staff. Specifically, a number of studies have found a correlation between active job crafting and reported levels of happiness, wellbeing, engagement and job satisfaction.

There are three main types of job crafting:

·      Task crafting refers to tangibly changing aspects of how we undertake our work including designing, adding or removing tasks.

·      Relational crafting refers to shaping how we relate and engage with others, including building and adapting our relationship with co-workers.

·      Cognitive or perception crafting describes the reframing of how we think about our work in general including the value and significance it plays to us personally and to others.

Through my workshops, I provide an overview of job crafting and outline how it is can be nurtured amongst the workforce using examples from innovative organisations such as Google and Logitech amongst others.

In addition to exploring the concept of job crafting we discuss different approaches and opportunities to personalise work and attendees share stories of when they have job crafted previously.

I am always impressed with the vast array of examples given by different groups in respect of when they had tailored or changed the physical, relational or perceptive elements of their jobs.

These examples include an IT technician who described how he had incorporated a love for testing and trying to crash and break software before its wider release into his role and was now the “go to guy” for this work. A student recruitment manager at a University became tearful describing a personal passion for outreach work driven by personal circumstances for was pivotal in her deciding to start an outreach program within the Faculty they worked in.

There have been smaller or “micro” examples of how individuals shaped or changed their approach to work. A number of participants recognised that they became more energised and engaged when they had a personal connection with colleagues and had sought out opportunities and scheduled catch-ups with clients and co-workers by phone or in person rather than relying on email.

Others described how they used images and pictures to remind themselves of the importance and significance of their work, including theatre workers having photos of past performances pinned to their walls or customer support teams having letters of thanks from clients and colleagues that they had helped.

These examples vary in size and scale, but they all count as job crafting as they are personal changes made by the employee themselves to aspects of their role or working lives with no obligation or requirement to do so. Indeed this autonomy and agency in making the change is argued to be one of the key factors which explains the positive benefits of job crafting. Simply stated, it enables us to bring a sense of control to aspects of our work.

I am always careful to collect meaningful and objective feedback from my workshops to understand whether they are making a difference. In collaboration with Dr Gavin Slemp and Dr Peggy Kern from the University of Melbourne I have formally investigated the impact of a number of workshops that I have run, analysing whether they have led to changes in job crafting behavior and made a difference in their approach to work. Together, we presented preliminary findings at the 2016 European Conference of Positive Psychology and are in the process of writing these up for formal publication.

I look forward to sharing more details of these results in the future. It will shine further light on the benefits, and any limitations, of job crafting and some of the barriers and obstacles which employees face in trying to actively craft their roles.

If you don’t want to tackle an academic paper, there are also some excellent articles available across the web including this one in the Harvard Business Review. You may also want to check out this video of Amy Wrzesniewski giving a presentation as part of a re:Work sponsored event at Google.

In the meantime, if you are curious about job crafting and want to know more then get in touch.

For those organisations which are committed to embracing opportunities to maximize the diverse talents, interests and passions of their employees, job crafting has powerful potential. Who wouldn’t want to work and stay at a company which took a positively distinctive and tailored approach to how they encouraged and supported their staff to thrive at work?