My job's value

Recently, I wrote a short article on the effect a team’s sense of ownership in it’s projects can have on the finished product. The surprising twist in my professional life last week has led me back onto the same train of thought, but I’m coming to it from a slightly different angle. I discussed “ownership” in a narrow sense, relating to a team’s involvement with and responsibility for decisions made about a project’s vision and direction. This isn’t the only way in which the word has impact; one also has “ownership” of a project in the broader sense of pure possession.

A relatively famous study offered a representative sample of students a straight choice between a bar of chocolate and a coffee mug. Opinions were split: neither bars nor mugs were substantially preferred. If, however, a group was given one, and then asked if they’d like to trade it for the other, surprisingly few would. Even though the items were roughly equivalent in the abstract, possession (however brief) seemed to imbue them with irrationally high value. My coffee mug is much more important to me than some random bar of chocolate with which I have no relationship, even if I’ve only had my mug for a few minutes. Even if it’s a bit chipped and cracked, it’s mine, and that counts for something.

The economist Richard Thaler coined the term “endowment effect” to describe this phenomenon, and I’m reminded very strongly of it as I start looking around for a new job. Now that my projects at Yahoo! have been taken from me, I’m starting to wonder whether I perhaps I’ve been valuing them more than I rationally ought. There are a lot of good jobs out there, and I’m relatively sure of finding one quite quickly. Perhaps my job wasn’t the best for me after all. Perhaps that bar of chocolate across the room is significantly tastier than I expect. Perhaps.

This, of course, is nothing more than a thinly veiled attempt to rationalize to myself the thought that it’s really not all that bad to have my position yanked out from under me. It’s not quite working.