The IKEA Effect on Engagement

I married into a Foreign Service family. My father-in-law was a career diplomat. My brother-in-law is currently a diplomat. My son interned at the Department of State. My sister-in-law is active in foreign political affairs and my wife has taught me more about world history than any of my prior school teachers.

One thing I have learned since joining a family that has had to move every 3-5 years across the world is a diplomat’s clan has to know where the local IKEA store is located. It is much easier to assemble your own furniture when you know your zip code may be changing on a regular basis. It saves on shipping and moving costs as well.

There is probably an IKEA store in your community founded on the premise that people will buy unassembled reasonably priced furniture in order to save on installation charges.

IKEA learned this business model based on the mistake the cake mix industry made in the 1950s when they introduced instant cake mixtures. US housewives rebelled against this novelty because it made cooking too easy. Manufacturers quickly saw the error of their ways and added other ingredients to cake recipes. By adding more labor to the cooking process, they enhanced the value of their product.

The do-it-yourself market that IKEA has perfected is grounded in meaning and purpose. We take more ownership in something we know that we have created. The more time and energy we put into a project the more identity we have with the experience and its outcomes.

Take our children for example. We have invested so much time, money and sweat equity into their development that they become precious commodities. Their value becomes so great that we often look past their weaknesses and frailties because we want the best for them and us.

The federal government should take note of how the IKEA effect can increase engagement in the workplace. Like a set of IKEA instructions, the more challenging the work, the more effort we put into our labor. When we see that piece of IKEA furniture we just created or look back on the completion of a taxing project, it not only motivates us to shop again at IKEA but gives us the confidence to tackle the next venture in the workplace.

Leaders, if you are listening: help your employees connect to their jobs in a way that brings purpose to their efforts like IKEA customers who place value on the products they help create. The only other thing better than a lifelong customer is a lifelong employee.

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