Southeast professor uses Legos to teach management lessons

Wednesday, January 4, 2012
Dr. Erin Fluegge Woolf, a management professor at Southeast Missouri State University, recently authored “Live, Laugh, Lego: Understanding The Job Characteristics Model Through an Experiential Exercise and Student Reactions.” (Kristin Eberts)

Managers could learn a lot by letting their employees play with Legos, according to a new study by a Southeast Missouri State University business professor.

Dr. Erin Fluegge Woolf discovered key factors that motivate employees in her recent study, titled "Live, Laugh, Lego."

In the study, Fluegge Woolf placed students into groups with each having to build a designated object out of Legos under different working conditions. The goal of the "Learning with Legos" projects that made up the study was to determine what factors prevent employees from putting forth their finest work. The study found that participants believed time constraints and detailed instructions were important factors to feeling satisfied and motivated with a job. Groups that lacked a set of detailed instructions found the ambiguity to be overwhelming, affecting their work performance and reducing the amount of satisfaction they felt. However, too many rules and extremely defined roles inhibited job performance.

Each group's first task was to pick a group leader, then the leader was given further instructions and a Lego kit. Some groups received just a picture, while others received step-by-step instructions.

Groups were given one of four workplace condition characteristics: bureaucratic, organic, downsized and ambiguous.

In the bureaucratic condition, participants were given excessive rules, not enough resources, their individual contributions were also limited.

"They get all these pieces for a dump truck, they have to sit in a circle, they have all these rules, they have to pass it only with their left hand. It's designed to have lots of red tape," Fluegge Woolf said. This group also had the most challenging object to build from their Legos.

She described the organic condition as one where participants had all the necessary materials, including outside resources, they had a high level of interrelated tasks, and participation and the freedom to complete those tasks.

"The organic group pretty much had everything, they could ask us questions if they needed to, they could collaborate; basically, this was the ideal group," Fluegge Woolf said.

The downsized condition represented an unfortunate reality in many workplaces today.

"In the downsized group, the leader actually had to fire somebody, but they couldn't tell anybody. That was awkward for the leader and for everybody else involved," Fluegge Woolf said.

Once a team member was fired, each group member's responsibilities changed as well as their amount of contribution and the freedom each member had to complete the project.

The ambiguous condition included vague instructions, limited resources and required a high level of contribution from group members.

"I don't think that any organization is purely any one of these, but in a lab study you want to replicate each of these as much as you can," Fluegge Woolf said.

The research paper on the study -- completed with MBA student Kim Donovan of Ste. Genevieve, Mo., who graduated in December -- included data from 88 student participants, but since that time, data has been gathered from about 60 more study participants.

In addition to being selected by the North American Management Society for presentation at the MBAA International 2012 Conference in March in Chicago, the paper received the Teaching Management Track Award.

Fluegge Woolf recognizes that groups of college students may respond differently than individuals in a real-world work environment, but said she hopes this model will be used in workplaces as a team-building exercise.

"If you had to do it in a real workplace, it would be a good way to talk about what was motivating to you in this activity and then use it as a jumping off point to say in our workplace let's talk about teamwork, creativity, ambiguity or other issues," Fluegge Woolf said.

The findings of this study reinforced two well-known management concepts, said Tracey Glenn, vice president for organization and leadership development at the Cape Girardeau Area Chamber of Commerce.

"People in an organization are motivated and satisfied based on, first, the level of contributions from both the total team and from the individual team members; and second, how clearly defined the set of rules are for the requested task," Glenn said. "I think employers would agree that their total production is optimized when employees are able to individually contribute to a project and when their entire team is productive."

Productivity is optimized when just the right amount of rules are set, she said.

"Too many rules often make the project more cumbersome and not enough rules can make the task at hand confusing," Glenn said.


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