Groundbreaking ideas and research for engaged leaders
Rotman Insights Hub | University of Toronto - Rotman School of Management Groundbreaking ideas and research for engaged leaders
Rotman Insights Hub | University of Toronto - Rotman School of Management

Why a work challenge is a good thing

Read time:

Aidan Campbell, Joanne Chung, Michael Inzlicht

There is a general perception that people avoid exerting effort as much as possible, but new research suggests that the harder people work, the more meaning they derive from their efforts.

According to the preliminary study, humans have a natural tendency to attach meaning to the effort they exert, and will find more meaning in more challenging tasks — up to a certain point.

Furthermore, researchers at the Rotman School of Management and the University of Toronto’s Psychology Department found that some people naturally derive more meaning from their efforts, and as a result tend to be more satisfied — and successful — in their pursuits.

“If you make people work harder at a task or an activity, they will find that activity more meaningful, regardless of individual differences,” says lead author and University of Toronto psychology student Aidan Campbell. “People just seem to enjoy being challenged to some extent, but not too much; we have some suggestive results that — and this might seem very obvious — people don't like to be in a situation where failure is guaranteed.”

The study, which is titled "Meaningfulness of Effort: Deriving Purpose From Really Trying," was inspired by a conversation between Campbell and co-authors Joanne Chung and Michael Inzlicht about why effort is considered a negative, or cost, in the current literature around labour.

“That led to the question, ‘does effort lead to meaning for people?’ And specifically, ‘are there people who find those efforts more meaningful than others?’” asks Campbell. “If you climb a mountain, versus getting a ride to the top, would the experience of going up the mountain be the same, because it's the same end result? Or is the effort an important factor that makes the experience more meaningful?”

Not only did researchers find that more difficult tasks are often perceived as more meaningful, but they also developed a scale that can help determine the amount of meaning an individual is likely to derive from those efforts. After whittling down a list of 67 potential items through testing and analysis, they landed on a 10-point statement scale they believe can theoretically measure just that. The scale asks respondents to rank how strongly they agree to 10 statements. Those statements include “pushing myself helps me see the bigger picture,” and “when I work hard, it rarely makes a difference.” 

“We are fairly confident now that we can measure this thing called 'meaningfulness of effort,'” says Inzlicht. “It seems to be reliable in some ways — although we're still testing for that — and it seems to predict things, and that's the really exciting part.”

For example, those who rank highly on the meaningfulness of effort scale tend to be more satisfied as employees, better performing students, have fewer mental health issues, report lower rates of burnout, and are more likely to have a higher employment status, which results in greater income.

Furthermore, those results remained consistent even when the researchers controlled for factors like industriousness and conscientiousness. The paper’s authors also suspect that those who have a greater meaningfulness of effort score are more likely to pursue higher levels of education, and are more likely to graduate, though those findings remain preliminary. There are, however, some important implications for both individuals and organizational leaders.

“For employers, it's in their best interest that their employees are happy, and this scale picks up on people who seem to be happy, and their happiness is created by working and pushing themselves,” says Inzlicht.

The researchers have a strong hunch that meaningfulness of effort can, to some degree, be nurtured and improved over time, though they have yet to prove it definitively. If it can be developed, however, it would equip employers and managers with a new tactic for improving morale, engagement and productivity, while potentially reducing burnout.

“The opportunity to have rewarding outcomes for their efforts will eventually snowball into having effort become this reinforcing thing in and of itself,” says Campbell. In other words, it may be possible for employers to help their staff derive more meaning from their efforts, and therefore become more self-motivated at work.” 

Inzlicht and Campbell caution that the scale isn’t the panacea for measuring happiness at the office. Those who derive meaning from their efforts can still be disengaged in their work, and instead attain meaning from activities outside of work, such as hobbies and physical challenges. They also warn that, based on their current understanding, an individual’s degree of “meaningfulness of effort” can change over time, and is more likely to decline if they are not continually challenged by their work.

“Pushing yourself seems to be a good thing, regardless of who you are and where you land on the scale; that's the finding I want people to take out of this,” says Campbell. “The activities that we do are most meaningful when we are pushed, and that's important for both the individual and employers.”

Meaningfulness of Effort Scale

Use a 5-point Likert scale ranging from Strongly Disagree to Strongly Agree (i.e., 1 - Strongly Disagree, 2 – Disagree, 3 – Neither agree nor disagree, 4 – Agree, 5 – Strongly Agree)

1. Pushing myself helps me see the bigger picture.
2. I often don’t understand why I am working so hard. 
3. I learn the most about myself when I am trying my hardest.
4. Things make more sense when I can put my all into them.
5. When I work hard, it rarely makes a difference. 
6. When I push myself, what I’m doing feels important.
7. When I push myself, I feel like I’m part of something bigger than me.
8. Doing my best gives me a clear purpose in life.
9. When I try my hardest, my life has meaning.
10. When I exert myself, I feel connected to my ideal life.

Aidan Campbell is a graduate student at the University of Toronto
Michael Inzlicht is a professor in the department of psychology, with a cross-appointed to the Rotman School of Management, and a Research Fellow at the Behavioural Economics in Action (BEAR) group. 
Joanna Chung is assistant Professor, Diversity Committee Chair in the department of psychology