Yang: Seriously, It’s Not Always About Money

Los Alamos

Why do people want to work? Why do you want to work? Is the paycheck the only incentive? Do only professionals care about “the meaning of work?” 

While there aren’t straightforward answers – and philosophical discussions are called for – Professor Barry Schwartz in his “Rethinking Work” (link) informs us that empirical evidence has pointed to “we want more than just monetary reward from our work,” and it applies across the board 

More than a decade ago, the Yale organizational behavior professor Amy Wrzesniewski and colleagues did a study on custodians in a major academic hospital. These custodians’ job description never included assisting patients in any manner, but many of the custodians would go out of their ways to interact with and assist patients and their families, such as joking around to lighten the mood, tucking in rumpled bed sheets, distracting patients while nurses hooked up tubes or drew blood, or even “dancing for them.” 

One custodian decided to postpone vacuuming the waiting room because some family members had fallen asleep. For these acts of kindness and considerations, the custodians never got extra pay; yet, it was the prospect of feeling useful that “got them out of the bed in the morning.”

Before you argue that it’s the setting – perhaps hospitals command compassion (not everyone’s experience) – that influences people, other studies also confirm that regardless of the type of work, some people always look for higher purposes in their work environments, including even call centers. I emphasize “some” because not all people desire autonomy and purpose, both professionals and laborers.

The findings from these studies have been widely cited, yet they never seem to have reached management in most organizations. Managers by and large still hold onto the “old” belief propagated by Adam Smith (and his disciples) in his “The Wealth of Nations.” Perhaps from his observations but certainly not from impartial evidence, Smith postulated that “it is the interest of every man to live as much at his ease as he can,” and therefore since people are that lazy, they would work only for pay. 

Remember, such assumptions were also the premise of Frederick Taylor’s scientific management that helped make assembly line work profitable (link). A reader, William Farina, author of “The Afterlife of Adam Smith,” responding to the New York Times article, “Rethinking Work,” informed us that Smith made the “lazy” assertion mostly based on his own profession at the time, a professor on a fixed salary. Further, Smith believed that “rivalship and emulation” would better motivate people. And even this assumption has been debunked (link).

Still, we keep the old assumptions like a security blanket; it may not smell great but it’s comforting … to children who need them.

I don’t presume to criticize Adam Smith’s seminal contribution; however, I resonate with Professor Schwartz’s perspective that we might have taken Smith’s assumptions for granted and created a self-prophetic process. If we assume people are fundamentally lazy, cheating and stealing at every chance, we would set up organizational structures accordingly, with rules and watchdogs.

When people at work feel constrained, they find loopholes to give themselves breaks, release boredom, or just to rebel. And lo and behold, the manager spots rule breakers and confirms the assumptions that probably all people are lazy and want to cheat. By the way, aren’t managers workers, too, more cogs in the organizational gears? And thereby also assumed to be lazy? The tragedy of such deficit thinking was what prompted me to start writing on these issues (link).

Human nature is complex; it has dark sides, positive sides, and a whole lot more than 50 other shades in between. How did we latch onto the negative assumptions made by Adam Smith? Why didn’t we instead try to explore and exploit the better sides of human nature? (link)

Even Smith’s assertion that there is a trade off between work satisfaction and efficiency – in order to gain organizational or production efficiency, we have to ignore employees’ job satisfaction – has been thoroughly refuted. Research findings have yielded strong evidence that where people find engaging, challenging, and meaningful work, they help increase the organization’s overall performance and profits. Conversely, “there is a human cost to routinizing and depersonalizing work.” From this angle, Professor Schwartz’s last sentence in his article, “Half of our waking lives is a terrible thing to waste” is heartbreaking. 

I know this post feels like a downer but we need to understand the sources of some of our organizational ills. Hence my constant rallying cry,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead

Direct Contact: taso100@gmail.com

Editor’s note: Dr. Yang has a PhD in Management from the Wharton Business School of the University of Pennsylvania. She taught at Wharton for a number of years, and consulted for small groups and small organizations and on cross-cultural issues. Her professional worldview comprises three pillars: 1. All organizations are social systems in which elements are inter-related. 2. To improve organizations, the focus should be on the positive dimensions on which to build. This philosophical foundation is Appreciative Inquiry. 3. Yang subscribes to the methodological perspective that she is part of the instrument from which to gain quality data from respondents, and with which to compare and contrast with others’ realities.