Legos, Harvard and phone bank volunteers

Legos, Harvard and phone bank volunteers

“Get Paid to Build Legos!” read a job-posting on a bulletin board at the Harvard University student union.

Wait a second. Someone will actually pay you to build Legos…at Harvard?

Don’t regret not studying harder for your SATs just yet. There’s a catch.

Yes, you’ll be paid for each Lego set you build. But you are told that once you finish, your Lego creation will be taken apart as you start building a new one. You can build as many Lego sets as you want but each one will be taken apart within minutes of completion.

Hmmm…this might not be the fun and profitable trip back to childhood you thought it would be. Maybe Harvard isn’t so great after all.

There’s actually a clever experiment here. Psychology professor and author Dan Ariely used this Lego “job” to test individuals’ need for meaningful work (read about it in his book). You can use the findings to maximize the output of your campaign volunteers.

In the control group of this Lego experiment, participants were told their Lego sets would be taken apart but not until after they had completed as many sets as they wanted and left. A second group had to watch as their Lego sets were taken apart right in front of them before they moved on to build another. Participants in both groups were also ranked at the start of the experiment on their love or passion for Legos.

Even though participants in both groups were paid the same amount per Lego set, the group that saw their Legos dismantled completed 32 percent less Lego sets. 

place them in meaningless working conditions, you can very easily kill any internal joy they might derive from the activity.

Control group participants who ranked as Lego lovers built the most sets, compared to participants in that group whose love for Legos was not as strong. But among the group who had to watch their sets be taken apart each time, there was zero difference in production between the passionate Lego fans and their less passionate fellow group members.

Ariely concluded, “…if you take people who love something…and you place them in meaningful working conditions, the joy they derive from the activity is going to be a major driver in dictating their level of effort. However, if you take the same people with the same initial passion and desire and place them in meaningless working conditions, you can very easily kill any internal joy they might derive from the activity.”

So what does this have to do with your campaign?

Every candidate hopes for dozens of volunteers to help them win. We spend hours signing up volunteers then call and coerce them into our headquarters for campaign work.

But how often do we sit down and think about the experience from our volunteers’ perspective? Do they find the work meaningful and appreciated? Or are they just given a phone and a call script to work their shift and leave?

You’re not tearing apart the Lego creations they are proud of, but you aren’t exactly providing a meaningful experience for your volunteers…and that means you aren’t getting the most production out of them.

One way to create more meaning is to consciously craft a simple story or explain their work’s positive impact on your campaign. Not just with platitudes like, “Your work is helping make a difference.” Be specific:

“Tonight’s phone bank goal is to speak with undecided voters. We want to leave the best impression possible with these voters. Tomorrow, [Candidate] will call each undecided voter you identify. You’re work tonight means [Candidate] can focus his/her time exclusively on the undecided voters who will make or break this race for us.”

The story you tell doesn’t need to be complicated. Simple stories can have a profound impact on the meaningfulness of work. This was proven in another study of college students making fundraising calls for the University of Michigan alumni scholarship fund. Call center employees met and listened for ten minutes to a scholarship recipient who talked with them about how the alumni scholarship made college possible and changed his life. The short, simple speech provided meaning and context for the call center employees and increased their fundraising 171% over the next month (read more about the study in the book, Give and Take).

Your volunteers are no different than the Lego enthusiast, call center employees or anyone else. We all want to feel out work has meaning. When you take a little bit of time to show that your volunteers’ work matters, you get volunteers more excited and motivated to work for you and your campaign. It’s not a silver bullet for victory, but an engaged and hardworking group of volunteers can make a big difference.

Image by lilivanili


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About the Author

Trevor Bragdon

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Hi, I’m the founder of EquipGOP. Every election cycle I meet smart, hardworking Republicans who are running for the first time but don’t know where to start. EquipGOP's goal is to help these local Republican candidates learn tactics and strategies they need to win on Election Day.