What Motivates Us to Work

Since the beginning of the industrial revolution, the working philosophy was that workers will do the minimal amount possible to earn their wage. So supervisors are needed to monitor
workers and enforce work standards. Wages are thought to be the motivating factor to cause people to go to work. So, in answer to the age old question, “Why do we work?”. The response would be because of carrots and sticks. Carrots are
the rewards that people come to work to obtain and sticks are the enforcement strategies that bosses use to demand adequate work. However, this picture of work is a dismal one. When we say that someone is in their job just for the money, it is
not just a description. It’s a judgement; about the job and the worker.
In a 2013 Gallup Poll of workplace satisfaction, it was found that there are twice as many actively disengaged workers vs actively engaged workers. Gallup has been measuring workplace satisfaction for over 20 years, 25 million employees in 189
different countries. The most recent Poll interview 230 000 employees in 142 countries. Overall, only 13% of workers feel engaged by their jobs. 63% are not engaged; they are checked out. The remaining 24% are actively disengaged,
actually despising their jobs. For about 87% of workers worldwide, work is a source of frustration not fulfillment. For this 87% money is the only reason to work.
As it turns out, these personal factors are far more powerful than carrots (money) or sticks (control). For those who are satisfied in their work, the motivations are varied and personal and do not include money. Let’s consider the most powerful motivator for work, meaning. People who work for a meaningful purpose will
work more diligently and with greater ingenuity than money alone could motivate. Now, we can all think about medical professionals who work tirelessly to ease human suffering. Sometimes we think about people who consider their work a calling to be a special group, doctors, lawyers, clergy, politicians, scientists and
artists. However, when researcher Amy Rasnewski interviewed workers in jobs,
careers and callings, she found the reverse was true. There were plenty of medical professionals who thought of their job as simply a paycheque and there were janitors, hairstylists, seamstresses and carpet manufacturers who saw their work as
a calling. It was not the level of education achieved, nor the title of the job, nor the size of the paycheques. Most importantly, it was the meaning that the worker found in the job. People found meaning in their friendships at work. Others found
meaning in the challenge in the complexity of their careers. Still others found tremendous purpose in the greater calling they found while working. Let’s look at some examples, Amy Rasnewski interviewed administrative assistants
working at a college. Roughly 1/3 of them viewed their work as a calling. They were providing key logistical support to instructors who were shaping the minds of the next generation of educated people. What could top that? Hairstylists were
interviewed and they found meaning in the special niche relationship they held in their clients’ lives. Stylists were proud of their creativity but found even more meaning in developing their skill in connecting with clients. Stylists learned to
decode what clients mean by wanting a style that looks“fresher”, how to discuss face shape and goodness of fit for a haircut that they have seen in a magazine, and they find meaning in the special permission stylists have to touch people’s hair in a
culture where physical touch is sparse.
Luke is a janitor at a hospital. He thinks of his work as a calling; he’s part of a team of people to ease people’s suffering and help them rest and heal. He has
taken discretion at work to see this greater calling served. He cleaned a patient’s room twice, when the father of a son who was in a coma became upset. The father did not see the room get cleaned. He had no control in a difficult situation, except
to ensure his son’s room was clean. So, Luke cleaned the room good naturedly to serve this father’s greater need to feel some control in a difficult situation. Luke refused to vacuum a waiting room while a family from out of town was sleeping in
that room. Luke’s calling was in the greater purpose of helping people suffering from illness to heal and recover.
In simple terms, we work best when our work is meaningful, when we have discretion and autonomy at work, when we have complexity at work and when there’s a direct link between our effort and the greater goal we see at work. The responsibility to create meaningfulness in the workplace is shared. It requires both
corporate willingness to share power and decision making and the workers’ willingness to personally invest in making work meaningful.
So, consider your workplace. What do you find meaningful at work? What parts of your job are under your discretion? Now, go and make your day the most meaningful possible! Lose yourself in meaningful work.

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