‘Why we Work’ examines what motivates us to get out of bed in the morning and go to work.
Barry Schwartz is a Psychologist, author and famous TED Talker who dedicates himself to tackling what he believes to be the psychological plagues of modern living. His 2015 Ted Talk ‘The way we think about work is broken’ implored listeners to stop thinking about employees as simply cogs in a wheel and look for a deeper meaning to try and make work more satisfying. He says that focussing on pay has made society confused and unhappy and we should all be empowered to find great work.
The book contains some key messages for employees and employers. You can learn the differences between a job, a career and a calling, and why it’s important. You’ll also find out why money isn’t the best motivation to work and why employers should focus on autonomy, investment and missions.
So let’s get started.
The reason why people go to work gives us an important clue into their experience of work.
Schwartz examined what employers can do to engage their employees and give them greater job satisfaction. Here’s a summary of his findings.
Autonomy – when employees are given independence and responsibility, and are given decisions to make, they take more pride in what they do, as well as feeling more trusted and respected. Schwartz found that this impacted all levels, including entry level roles.
Investment – employees feel more valued if their employer invests in developing their skills, whether it be time, money or effort.
Mission – employees should feel that they are contributing to a powerful, overarching mission, that should permeate through their everyday tasks so they feel as though they are part of something bigger than themselves.
If a company is experiencing problems, or a down period, chances are they’ll reduce autonomy, investment and mission levels to compensate. However, Schwartz argues that this can make the problems worse and create vicious work cycles, where employee motivation lowers even further, performance drops and the company does even worse.
Schwartz also identified some of the other main culprits of lack of employee motivation as overstructuring, micromanaging, and perhaps surprisingly, financial incentives.
Schwartz uses the example of a case study in a nursery school where parents kept turning up late to pick up their children. The nursery decided to introduce a fine to parents who were late, but actually saw a 40% increase in late pick-ups. But why? Whilst before the fine was introduced parents saw being late as bad behaviour and felt guilty, they began to see it as simply an extra they could pay for.
The relevance of this example here is it is showing that once money is introduced, behaviour transforms from being about integrity into a financial transaction. “The offer of money tells people implicitly that they are operating in the financial/commercial domain, not the social domain,” says Schwartz.
People start to make sacrifices they normally wouldn’t when they’re offered more money, such as their mental wellbeing, work/life balance, unpleasantness from co-workers and so on, and this is an unhealthy way to look at your work.
Instead companies should focus on making the workplace a happy, supportive and positive place with clear social incentives.