Purpose is motivating in the abstract, essential for strategic choices, and helpful for decision-making. We all know about the man cleaning the toilets at Cape Canaveral who was “putting a man on the moon” (if you believe it). But it’s individual recognition that gives our work meaning at the personal level.

The proof is in studies done by Dan Ariely, the behavioural economist. In one, people were asked to assemble Lego Bionicles. For the first fully-assembled robot toy, they would be paid $2, then 1.89 for the next and so on, 11 cents less each time. How long would they keep working, given the diminishing returns? Half the people were allowed to line up their finished toys in front of them, but they knew it was for an academic study, and the Bionicles would be broken up at the end for the next person to assemble. For the other half, each completed toy was handed to a supervisor who broke it up in front of them and put the pieces back in the box. When they finished the next Bionicle, they got that box back, ready to do again. Those people who got to line up the fruits of their labours on the desk made an average of 10.2 toys before stopping. The people who saw them broken up stopped after 7.2. Remember, they were being paid the same, but wages were falling. The sense of achievement in the first group made them work on for less pay. Put another way, the absence of meaning in the second group meant they had to be paid 40% more for the same output.

In another experiment, students were given word searches, and were paid 55c for the first completed sheet and 5c less for each subsequent one. Some students handed each completed sheet to a “supervisor” who “reviewed” it without comment. Others were told in advance their work would be collected but not reviewed. A third group handed in their sheets to a supervisor – who fed them into a shredder immediately. No prizes for guessing that the first group kept going much longer than the other two. They weren’t getting positive feedback, but they were getting acknowledgement of their efforts. We might guess, too, that those expecting to be reviewed did more accurate work.

Having a purpose for the brand or company – worthy or otherwise – gives strategic direction, but for people to feel good, and perform well at work, every day, their colleagues’ and manager’s responses to them are critical. It doesn’t even have to be effusive praise. Simple acknowledgement will do.

Individual managers can give meaning to each person they work with, whether subordinate or colleague or even boss, through recognising their efforts. That’s something we are all in control of. Words are cheap, yes, but don’t underestimate their value. Whether you’re changing the world or just changing the toner in the photocopier, a little recognition goes a long way.

Thought leadership | July 2017