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Workplace Motivation Goes Beyond the Paycheck

Posted on October 06, 2015

There once was a joke about a man walking the Italian countryside when he came across twelve resting laborers. Impressed by their sloth, he offered a cash prize to the laziest of them.

Upon hearing this, eleven workers jumped up and emphatically made their case. After considering their stories and reasons, he awarded the prize to the twelfth man who hadn’t even bothered to get up to plead his case.

It’s a funny joke but it’s something worth considering - is the only way to motivate people by offering them some sort of monetary gain?

This assumption about human nature seems to be the underlying premise in the modern work world. Work is unpleasant and tedious and the only way to get people to do it is to pay them. Consider how job negotiation is structured, the most important component in negotiation? Not job flexibility, benefits or culture. Nope, the biggest item of contention comes down to brass tax: compensation structure. This automatically sets the assumption that you are here to do whatever we ask for the agreed upon sum, so grit your teeth and deal with it.

Perhaps this grim view of work is the reason so many American workers feel disengaged from their jobs. According to Gallup, almost 90 percent of workers feel “not engaged” or “actively disengaged” from their jobs. This astounding fact means almost all of us are are doing work we don’t enjoy at places we don’t like.


Learning From History

How did this come to be? Perhaps it started with the founder of modern capitalism, Adam Smith, and the dismal view he took of the labor force. As he wrote in his magnum opus Wealth of Nations, “It is the interest of every man to live as much at his ease as he can.” In Smith’s view, workers are lazy idlers by nature and the only way you can coerce them to action is by paying them.

Smith’s foundational economic view then gave rise to scientific management which reduced workers to mere cogs in the industrial machine. In this system output was ruthlessly measured with a stopwatch: the classic example being how much steel could be produced by a faceless drone in an hour.

The entire process was dehumanizing and, as David Brooks argues in his persuasive editorial, counterproductive. It doesn’t have to be like this and there is a better way.


The Supporting Evidence

Adam Smith’s cynical outlook persists somehow despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. In fact, most workers enjoy doing things considered beyond their job requirements they are not paid to do.

For example, custodians at a hospital, although never specifically tasked with the assignment, considered the best part of their job in offering comfort to patients when they can. As one succinctly put it, “I enjoy entertaining the patients. That’s what I enjoy the most.” That was the motivation for that custodian to get out of bed in the morning. The pay was a requirement for the unpleasant tasks of cleaning toilets and floors but the big motivator was the opportunity for shared humanity with patients.

But isn’t this all just squishy talk about feelings? A hard-headed economist would argue that reducing humans to cogs is a business necessity for maximum efficiency. Were that only the case - the fact is that companies that recognize the humanity of their employees are the ones that outperform.

In a book surveying a diverse set of companies across a range of industries, “The Human Equation” author Jeffrey Pfeffer found engaging workplaces that treated their workers like human beings were more profitable than those which did not. Similar results were found in Michael Beer’s book “High Commitment High Performance.”


How To Drive More Engagement

Give employers the option of increasing revenue and performance at almost no additional cost and they’ll jump to ask, “What do I do?”

Fortunately Brooks is clear on how to achieve this goal. He writes, “By giving employees more of a say in how they do their jobs. By making sure we offer them opportunities to learn and grow. And by encouraging them to suggest improvements to the work process and listening to what they say.”

That’s it? That’s all that needs to be done?


The American workforce wants to be motivated by more than just a paycheck. With the Baby Boomer generation retiring and making room for forward-thinking Millennials, workers have a greater desire to find long-term impact and meaning in their career choices. This means that keeping a successful workforce will mean more than just allowing them to be employed.

And you can get started by scheduling a demonstration of our employee suggestion software. We can show you how to engage your employees, unlock their value, and increase your business performance. It’s something that works well for everyone.

Let’s break from the cynical view of employees as mere cogs in the machine and make the work world better for everyone together. Schedule a demo today.


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