22 July 2006

Meaning and money: why do we work?

What motivates us to work, or satisfies us about our job? I've just caught up with two recent posts on this from different internal communications consultants that are worth reading in tandem.

In his post, Lee Smith refers to a new survey by the UK-based Work Foundation on job satisfaction. As he says, the study gives some mixed messages: a majority of workers derive personal fulfilment from their jobs, and regard their work as stimulating and meaningful, while about half also view their work as a means to an end.

Meanwhile David Ferrabee sets off a ripple of comments with his observation: "I like to remind people of something unbelievably simple: people come into work to work." David makes his point in the context of asking whether or not organisations should reward employees for making changes the employer wants.

Motivation to work, and the satisfaction we have in our job, may be closely related but distinct issues to untangle elsewhere. Notwithstanding that, I believe we are motivated or satisfied by a mix of factors that change as we mature, or as we encounter different contexts during our lives. Maslow, of course, had one view of this, and there are many others. Over my career, I have certainly felt social status, intellectual stimulation and companionship among my own fluctuating needs. And I know that money has and will always motivate me in some of the work I do. But from experience of voluntary work, I also know that the genuine thanks of another human being for helping them meet their own needs is priceless.

Technorati: , ,


Lee Smith said...

Thanks for adding to the debate Andrew.

Your point about voluntary work is a very interesting one. Many people are highly motivated by 'doing the right thing'. Over the last few years I've seen more employees (and prospective employees) asking tough questions about their organisation's CSR and community involvement policies. There's no doubt this issue is particularly important to Generation Yers (indeed, I've seen one large organisation change its approach to CSR because it was hampering graduate recruitment).
I believe the best organisations now adopt an inside-out approach to CSR by putting employees at the heart of what they do.

Motivation is, of course, an individual thing and so the key is to encourage employees to support their own causes, as well as the big corporate ones. One of the best and most symbolic ways to do this is to offer a few days paid 'community leave' each year. Not everyone will take up the offer, but those that are inspired to do so will be grateful.

I've added a further comment and some useful links to my blog (www.talkingic.typepad.com).

Martin Ross said...

Paul Graham is brilliant on this. Read his piece "What Business Can Learn From Open Source" http://www.paulgraham.com/opensource.html

"I think the most important of the new principles business has to learn is that people work a lot harder on stuff they like. Well, that's news to no one. So how can I claim business has to learn it? When I say business doesn't know this, I mean the structure of business doesn't reflect it."

Show it to your boss...

Liam FitzPatrick said...

I'm always interested in focus groups to hear what people say about why they come to work. Maybe I should dig out all my old notebooks but my abiding impression is that people rarely say "for the money" but normally describe some sort of social meaning.

I've had welders talking about the usefulness of their finished product in building communities and counter staff from a bank explaining how they help people get on in life by buying their homes and benefiting from insurance.

When employers think it's all about the money they miss the point. And its not about the work per se - it's about the meaning of the work.


Graeme Ginsberg said...

I'm always fascinated to read about these studies that talk about job satisfaction. Workers "find their work motivating and stimulating", "it's not just about the money", and so on. But it seems to me that it's often nothing to do with what organisations are doing right or wrong. Rather, it's about the content of the work itself and the situation that people find themselves outside of their job.

In previous work lives I washed dishes in restaurants, stacked shelves in a warehouse and packed bags of flower bulbs on a farm. These weren't student holiday jobs - I did them to make ends meet - to pay the rent and eat. These were such low-paid jobs that, at one stage, I had to run two jobs to make 15-hour workdays to fulfil financial obligations. Character-building? I suppose to an extent. But at the time it was very boring and extremely tiring - I was unfulfilled and unhappy.

But it wasn't the organizations' fault. The managers were often sympathetic and fun - they made sure we had our tea-breaks, the kitchen was suitably stocked with biscuits and the radio was on the right station or not at all depending on what we (or most of us) wanted. It was the mindless work and the inability to escape it and the situation that really caused the lack of fulfilment and unhappiness.

At best, I believe that these studies are incomplete, particular-time-slice glimpses into the lives of a relatively select few at best. At worst, they're just plain misleading. The French have that great phrase "metro-boulot-dodo" --- a resigned, hangdog, perhaps existentialist, way of describing the meaninglessness daily grind that people have to go through --- "subway, work, sleep", "subway, work, sleep"... This is really how it is for the workers of the world. And it's not only miners, factory workers and bin men that wish they weren't working but have to do it for the money. Doctors who intervene to save a life, scientists working on a groundbreaking project, company directors who lead an organisation through a successful change programme - all these feelings of fulfilment and even the enjoyable activities that their relatively large salaries help them to access outside their work are fleeting.

Achieving sustained employee engagement at work is really not possible for leaders, managers and communicators. No one is ultimately satisfied/fulfilled by their work. We all work at some level to make ends meet - our work makes us tired and frustrated. We dream of not having to work at all --- and even then, the "fortunate" few of us who win the lottery and don't have to work, become unfulfilled and unsatisfied).

Leaders, managers and communicators can contribute to employees' lack of satisfaction and unhappiness at work, but it's they it's the nature of work itself that is ultimately the real root of these. They can hope to engage and promote a sense of fulfilment, but their achievements can only ever be fleeting. There are great engagement programmes out there, but results can only ever be temporary. Employees are constantly moving jobs - they become unhappy, they want something else - and, if they don't move, it's because they feel trapped by their circumstances. They have financial obligations and either can't afford to move or are unable to because there are no other jobs (they're qualified to) move to.