Blog – The School of Life

On the Origins of Motivation at Work

Getting people to work hard and do their best – to be highly motivated – is a central problem not only of individual businesses but of the economy as a whole. Everyone can recognise in themselves what a huge difference being fired-up makes: you confront challenges with energy, you sail through routine tasks, you stay calm under pressure, you come up with solutions to problems. If only we could unlock this kind of attitude in ourselves, we would, more widely, produce a much higher productivity and a flourishing economy.

There are lots of ideas in circulation about how to enhance motivation: it might help if an office or workplace is light, airy and pleasant; has a pizza day once a month; makes space for a table-tennis table. But such suggestions only hover around the edges. The overwhelmingly dominant current belief is that the best way to get people motivated is by giving them financial threats and inducements. Higher financial rewards are taken to be the essential way by which you attract and keep talent.

This theory was applied on a massive scale, in the later part of the twentieth century. A great many state-owned enterprises – railways, car manufacturing companies, power-stations – were seen to be failing. They were not efficient or profitable. Privatisation was conceived as a way of using a financial carrot and stick mechanism to reform them. If successful, the management could now expect very much higher salaries. And – on the other side – competitive failure would be punished by the market. The company could go bust, and everyone would lose their jobs – rather than being eternally supported by a forgiving and generous government.

Fear and reward around money, administered by the free market, were seen as the crucial factors that would transform motivation and turn lacklustre companies into commercial dynamos. This approach has worked its way deep into our vision of motivation. If a company wants to hire the most impressive graduates, it must offer the highest entry salaries. It’s summed up in the supposed common sense truth that if you pay peanuts, you get monkeys.

Still, companies continually struggle with motivation. Their employees don’t seem to care about the work itself: they gossip and chatter; they feel bored; they get tired easily; their minds are mostly half on something else; they don’t come in each day eager to overcome problems; they do the minimum they can get away with; they are always dreaming of days off and holidays; they live for the weekend. They seem to get sick a lot – and leave regularly. They want promotion, not because they really would be good at shouldering extra responsibility, but because it’s the way to get more money. Organisations are constantly playing around with the levers of financial motivation; offering or withholding money as an inducement or a threat. They use individual and team bonuses, cash rewards, profit sharing and company stock as ways of using economic factors to enhance motivation.

But there are some very striking examples of motivation outside this system. The military is a central case. In the armed forces – often for very modest pay – people will do extraordinary things. Even die. It’s an astonishing contrast. You can pay someone £18,000 a year to die for you. But you struggle to pay someone £22,000 a year to sit in a room and fill in forms.

This tells us that motivation simply cannot be primarily financial. People can be moved by money. But they can be moved and motivated much more by other things. The armed forces also tell us something about where the strongest kinds of motivation come from.

In the army, the soldier doesn’t just think they are serving their own interests; they see themselves as serving the best interests of their nation. They believe that what they are doing is right and deeply important. The intensity of their motivation is tied to their conviction of the great value of what they are involved in. It isn’t for money that they are ready to suffer hardship and expose themselves to grave danger; it’s for their country’s honour or to protect the people they love. Here, motivation is the result of the individual operating with a visceral sense of furthering a part of what one might call ‘the Good’, through their work. The soldier needs to get paid (how else can they live?) but it’s not the money that’s got the emotional pulling power.

‘The Good’ isn’t a phrase we tend to use everyday; and it’s entirely understandable that we’ve become a bit nervous around it. But ‘the Good’ makes perfect intuitive sense: it’s the satisfaction of the highest needs of mankind. It’s all the things that are felt to be in accordance with an ideal of human flourishing and the better self – what the Greek Philosophers called eudaimonia. It includes, though isn’t limited to, nursing, protecting, delighting, sheltering, teaching and enabling others. Though capitalism tends to describe humans as primarily financially-driven, self-maximising creatures, there is an important extent to which we are in fact driven to serve other people – and gain our greatest thrills from doing so.

Obviously people disagree about what exactly constitutes the best way to serve others. But the search isn’t for a single thing that could motivate everyone in the world. What companies need to find is an account of authentic serving that they can believe in and which they want to get employees to share.

The more the worker feels they are contributing to the Good, the less there is a problem of motivation. They see their work as being something important; they want to do it right. They believe deeply that it needs to be done and they feel proud of their role (however modest) in making it happen. Money is a vital active ingredient here. But it’s the worth of the undertaking that moves people. And if an organisation can convincingly present itself as serving the Good, there’s less need to use the instrument of money as the primary source of motivation (either through punishment or reward).

So, for organisations, there’s a central challenge around articulating their mission so as to tap into the deeper roots of human motivation. Can they lay claim to our stronger motives – by orienting themselves towards serving an aspect of the Good and explaining this internally and to the world?

For some organisations, this is going to be a very testing exercise: because it will show up just how far they currently are from having any purpose that could truly motivate people: how far they are from doing something properly worthwhile.

There are plenty of organisations that serve the Good directly – even if they don’t entirely live up to this task – like schools and hospitals. But what about a company that manufactures and supplies paper clips? Are they connected to the Good? The explicit service they provide is very modest: preventing sheaves of loose paper getting muddled. But the human territory in which it operates is large: the longing to bring and maintain purposeful order. It is the same end that is served, with greater public recognition, by libraries, museums, maps, statistics and logic. The makers of paperclips make a small but significant contribution to the noble cause of Order in human life.

Society is often rather snobbish in this regard. It will bestow glamour on brain surgeons, but neglect the humbler work of the nurse. It will be impressed by fighter pilots, but not so much by traffic wardens. And yet the so-called ‘lesser’ activities are always connected up with the higher ones. It merely takes a more generous, imaginative, even artistic eye to spot the link.

Vermeer’s Little Street, shows people involved in activities which then, as now, were generally regarded as pretty humble. Sweeping the yard, darning a sock, scrubbing the tiles. And we can imagine people often not being terribly motivated. Vermeer must have overheard all the familiar complaints: ‘What’s the point. I’m only going to have to do it all again tomorrow. No one notices much. It’s so tedious.’ But his aim, remarkable and very necessary in all eras, is to return true glamour to these little tasks: in themselves they may be minor. But they enact something major. They are the details out of which a deeply impressive and attractive civic life is created.

Vermeer is showing how you reconnect members of the workforce with the higher Good that they are in fact serving. He shows them (and us) the beauty of what they are doing in keeping a house tidy. He reminds them of the wonderful whole of which they are parts. The picture is an ideal motivator, because it makes the worker see the dignity and value of what they do. It’s reminding them why they want to be part of this. And so the role of money in motivation takes a slightly back seat.

The artist Vermeer is defining a central task of management, which is to ensure that the part of the Good in which the company is operating becomes as visible as possible. In the army and other top performing organisations, the Good is visible without too much work needing to be done. One can just tell that brain surgery and civil defence are important. Also, in many, daily ways the ultimate point of the organisation is restated and reaffirmed. So in the army there are, unabashedly, songs and flags, rituals, medals and ceremonies which are designed to keep at the front of every individual’s mind just exactly what this organisation is for. The relevance (and therefore the worth) of every task can be explained. If someone asks why they have to polish their shoes so much there’s an answer: it’s an exercise in discipline. Or if they ask why do they have to go for long runs on hot days: so as to prepare for conditions in conflict zones. The point of using the Army as a model here isn’t particularly to single them out for praise in terms of what they are for. It’s to point up the organisational advantages of an institution seeing itself as having a clear and important relationship to the Good.

Let’s move into the civilian sector. The Swiss Federal Railways has framed their relatively unexciting task of moving people in rectangular boxes from one place to another in the Helvetic Republic via another, more abstract, ideal: that of integration. At a purely practical level they are devoted to ensuring that the train service is aligned with bus and boat services. But, above that, is a political ambition: a country should see itself as a collective entity, our lives are connected and a civilised, universal and egalitarian transport system gives physical expression to that idea of the Good. The company is a kind of secular religion that worships timetables and connections. By investing in especially beautiful clocks (that are all synchronised), elegant stations, and dignified uniforms and by developing a cult of being on time, the railway corporation tells itself and the wider world about its ideals: that is about how it serves the Good. An employee might be undertaking a comparatively narrow task: monitoring freight movements or checking passenger tickets. But they are rightly proud of being part of this mighty system; which is another way of saying, they can see how what they do actually does serve the nation. We should take in two other aspects: firstly, the Swiss Federal Railways manages to be both highly efficient and in government hands (no need for privatisation when the Good is visible). And salaries do not need to be particularly elevated: because people know what they are serving and are proud to do so.

In the ideal economy, all firms would be focused on addressing our true needs. So, they would all have a very good case to make: they would all in fact be serving the Good in some more or less direct fashion. And therefore, every job would be worth doing, and the person doing it would enjoy a full measure of public and self-respect. And the owners of the firms would equally be entitled to such regard.

We aren’t there yet. Many firms (the sellers of trash TV shows; the builders of substandard houses etc.) sell us below average goods and do not advance human welfare in any distinct way. These are the firms where money is everything and where we feel in our bones that working there will only be a means to survive rather than to flourish.

But already we can see the shape of the future of capitalism: a world where we get better at learning to make money from the Good – and where we learn how to make the Good more visible to employees and the world; so that one is working for money, but, as importantly, one can see that one is working to make a slightly better world, one elegant paper clip at a time.