What Motivates Workers: An Expert View
Tom’s Note: I was reading the Philadelphia Inquirer and noticed a full-page advertisement for a one-day class by Barry Schwartz, on Why We Work, which is also the title of his book. The advertisement’s copy was rooted in layman’s language and not the patois of academia. I was intrigued enough that I thought about signing up for the course, even though it cost $125. Then, voila, I realized the obvious. Might not the good professor’s observation shed some light on this topic for our readers. After all, this entire year, we’re focusing on workforce issues. I bought the book (not on my expense account) to determine whether it withstood the smell test. The book, which is both readable and modest in length, passed the test easily. Then I called Professor Schwartz and chatted about work and why the heck we do it.
Tom Perić: When people talk about prime motivators on the job, what do you see as the basic errors or assumptions that they’re operating under and that are inaccurate?
Barry Schwartz: The presumption that almost everyone has is that the prime motivator for work is pay, and if you get that right, nothing else matters, and if you get that wrong, nothing else matters. There’s a long and hallowed tradition that leads to this conclusion, and I would say most workplaces and most compensation schemes around the country, around the world, for the last several hundred years, have been built out of that assumption. What I try to suggest in the book is that that is a mistaken assumption. People work for pay, they wouldn’t work if they didn’t get paid, [but] they care about a lot more than their pay, and the things they care about are all completely neglected.
Tom Perić: By way of your explanation that implies, then that there is a continuing flywheel, almost, if you will, of perpetuating this mistaken belief. What contributes to that even in a fairly sophisticated technological age that we have now?
Barry Schwartz: Well, I don’t think there’s a simple answer to that. I suggest one possible mechanism, which is what I call “ideology” in the book. Adam Smith, the father of the free market, had this view, and then he extolled the virtues of division of labor, his famous example of a pin factory, and then you’ve got the scientific management movement, which tries to take assembly line factories and rationalize every movement of every person every second of the day to maximize efficiency, and then you’ve got the Ford assembly line. If you create workplaces like that, then Adam Smith is right.
If you go to work every day and do exactly the same thing minute after minute, hour after hour, and it’s not challenging, and it’s not interesting, and it’s not ... It’s essentially an arbitrary piece of a more complicated process. Why would you do that work except for the paycheck? The structure of the workplace virtually rules out any other reason people would have for working aside from their compensation, and that’s the model of industrial production.
Tom Perić: If you look at manufacturing jobs, or even in the wholesale business that I frequently write about, all these wholesalers, to some degree or another, have warehouses, so there’s a certain repetitive process to going to find a product. What you’re suggesting, then, is that the people who run these companies have to think differently about how they engage their employees, or is that too simplistic?
Barry Schwartz: Well, it’s not just how they engage their employees, [it’s} what their employees actually do. Now, I’ve been thinking some about the particular industry that you’re concerned with, and if you work in a warehouse and all you’re doing is filling orders, it’s not obvious. Well, let me back up; what do people care about? They care about having some discretion and autonomy in their workday. They care about being challenged and becoming better at their jobs. They care about having some variety in what they do, and they care about getting the respect of their supervisors and of their peers, and they want work that’s meaningful, and I think a shorthand unpacking of meaningful is: work that improves the lives of other people in some small way.
Now, in some jobs, it’s not easy to see how you get all that, but I think in most jobs that involve interacting with other people, you can find a way of thinking about your work, where doing your job well makes a big difference to the person you’re serving. If you’re cutting hair, the haircut you give can have an enormous impact on self-confidence and general mood and feeling of well-being of the person whose hair you cut, and obviously, if you’re a doctor, you save lives by doing what you do. If you’re a teacher, you inspire students to teach themselves...
Tom Perić: OK.
Barry Schwartz: ... and in the book, I describe these hospital janitors, who are absolutely the lowest in the pecking order in the hospital, but at least some of them think of themselves not as merely people who empty trash and wash floors but as people who have an essential role to play in an institution that has a noble mission. I think in HVAC-like stuff, doing the work well, making products that actually do what they’re supposed to do and that do it reliably, is an enormous contribution to the welfare of the people who buy your products.
Tom Perić: In the case of the wholesaler, there’s the other two components, and that is they get the product that they’re supposed to get, which some of these people are fanatical about, and that they get it in a timely manner.
Barry Schwartz: Exactly ... and that’s ... the stuff is well prepared for when it’s sitting in the warehouse so that it actually is operable when they get it.
Tom Perić: Someone might not be as astute as you are about the subject of what really motivates workers, if he or she even thinks about that. It takes a certain adroitness on their part to sit back and say, “You know, my 22 warehouse employees, they do it this way, and how can I change that?” I mean, the cliché is that change [occurs] at the top, I get that, but what does that really mean sometimes, right? Do they call you up and hire you to consult with them, or do...
Barry Schwartz: No. They could, and some places do that, they bring in consultants. Whether they actually act on the recommendations is another matter.
Tom Perić: Well, yeah.
Barry Schwartz: The evidence is that when you create workplaces where people want to be, profits go up. The most successful companies are companies where people want to work.
Tom Perić: Good point.
Barry Schwartz: This isn’t about compensation, it’s about the character of the work; you’d think that, by now, with decades of evidence, the crappy workplaces would’ve disappeared, but they don’t disappear. They persist, and it’s partly, I think, because the people who run these organizations have blinders on. They believe that it’s just about adding 50 cents an hour to the paycheck; or if they’re supervisors, they worry that if they give more autonomy to the people they supervise, they’ll become superfluous.
Tom Perić: Yeah, I often hear about ... When I talk to someone who’s dissatisfied at the job, obviously, there’s always a lot of reasons, but invariably, every fourth or fifth time I hear that, “My boss is a control freak, and I can’t blink my eye without that person being right there.”
Barry Schwartz: Yeah.
Tom Perić: I’m not going to answer for you, but I suspect that tells you a whole lot, and it’s not the $0.25 an hour [increase].
Barry Schwartz: I’m sure that’s true. I think employee retention is a huge problem, and not just in your industry; even in the sort of sexy high-tech industry, they have a hard time keeping people. It has very little to do with compensation; it has to do with what the work’s going to be like. You hire a developer at Google, and when Google was a startup, every day is the most exciting thing you can imagine, but once it’s a going concern and it has to spend as much of its time maintaining what’s already done as it does creating something new, well, then there’s the attraction of joining a startup.
Even though financially it may be risky, you’re going to be at the cutting edge of something, whereas now at a mature company like Google all you are is maintaining the great achievements of people who’ve come before you, so I know. I’ve spent some time working with folks at Google. They have a huge problem with retention, despite being incredibly generous with perks of every imaginable kind and the high salaries; it’s not about salary. When they do employee surveys, nobody, nobody complains about what they get paid...
Tom Perić: Interesting.
Barry Schwartz: ... so it’s about something else; and I think if you’re in your industry it’s harder ... but you have to make people feel like there’s a reason for them to come to work every day, aside from the paycheck.
Tom Perić: How do you attract people who are not even there yet [with change]? What would be a message that might resonate, or they might, at the very least, is the way I look at it, you want them to take the first step, and the first step, to me, is always just inquiring or being slightly exploratory.
Barry Schwartz: I think you really have to talk up the importance of this work to the quality of life of the people who benefit from it. It’s not sexy, it’s not glamorous, but I think that the people who live in this world have done nothing to try to make it attractive. It’s just better than working at McDonald’s, because you get paid for it.
Tom Perić: [laughing] ... Yeah, you’re completely right. I mean, as I sit here and I think about this, air quality and contributing to the environment, those were real placid slogans if they even existed 20 years ago or 10 years ago, but now we see it all the time, and so a truly more energy-efficient unit, or one that doesn’t contribute to hurting the environment, at least somehow, might resonate that it really does matter; you’re part of that, even if it’s a small component to contributing to a healthier planet.
Barry Schwartz: Right, and there’s a great example that’s in my book, of this guy, Anderson, who owned Interface carpet tile. He decides he’s going to move to zero-footprint and expect to take a financial hit, and it ends up becoming more profitable, and the reason is because the workforce was unbelievably motivated; and he flattened the hierarchy, he gave people on the shop floor authority for coming up with ideas about how to make the production process both more efficient and more green, and they took it seriously, and they worked their ***** off.
Now, it seems to me that in this age we’re living in, HVAC offers everybody that kind of an opportunity, but I doubt that very many people think of their job in those terms, and they get no encouragement to think of their job in those terms by the people who supervise them.
Tom Perić: What about the age differences here? I’m switching over to talk about the characteristics of the Millennials. If we’re going to assume that at least part of this, if the job action is different that Adam Smith had it wrong.
Barry Schwartz: Well, from what I read, of what little survey research there is … millennials, there seem to be two claims that are being made, and I would take both of them with a grain of salt at this point. One is that millennials care even more about what they do, as opposed to what they get paid, than their predecessors ... so as important as getting, sort of, meaning and engagement out of your work might be, in general, more important to people entering the workforce, and women care more about this than men. Now, I’m guessing that your industry is still almost entirely male.
Tom Perić: You are an astute person.
Barry Schwartz: Yes, but if you’re trying to attract talent, you don’t want to exclude half the potential workforce forever, and women want to do work that they are, sort of, proud of, and feel good about, more than men do. Now, both of these things, it’s possible neither of these things really holds up when you collect enough data, and second, they may both be temporary. I worry that millennials have these idealistic aspirations partly because they don’t have a mortgage to pay and kids to take care of, and then as the nut gets bigger, they’ll look a lot like their parents, and it’ll be, on the whole, about the money, but at the moment, it’s not.
There’s an old saying that I hate, but I’m going to repeat it anyway, is that a conservative is a liberal who’s been mugged.
Tom Perić: Yeah.
Barry Schwartz: Life gets in the way of idealism for a lot of people, but the frustrating thing about all this is that if you enable people to feel, to get satisfaction out of their work so that they’re actually looking forward to coming to work every day, they will do better work, and you will make more money. There is a presumption that there’s a trade-off between efficiency on the one hand and work satisfaction on the other, and if all you care about is efficiency, then you create your horrible workplaces that are extremely efficient, and people make a trade-off. “I hate my work, but I get more money. I get paid more money than I would if my work were less efficient,” and I’m saying that the evidence is that that’s not the case, that’s a false trade-off.
Tom Perić: What question should I ask you that I haven’t asked you?
Barry Schwartz: What I’d like to see you do, since you know this industry, is imagine where the levers might be to ... Clearly, when you’re designing these devices, there’s always room for meaning, engagement, challenge and stuff like that. I suspect when you’re installing these devices, there’s room for meeting, engagement and challenge, especially if you’re retrofitting old structures.
You may even discover that what was recommended is not the right device for the particular layout, and if you go to a layout with your mind open rather than closed, you might notice that there’s actually a better air conditioning, approach to air conditioning than the one that the contractor or architect or whoever recommended. When you’re fabricating these things, I don’t know, there’s the example I have [in the book] of the General Motors assembly line, the worst automobile factory in the United States, which probably means the worst in the world. It got taken over by Japan, by Toyota ... and it became the most productive place in the country without changing the workforce, so it’s not like they replaced lazy, sloppy American workers with industrious, careful Japanese workers. The same people. Part of the reason why is that they managed to inspire in these people the sense that they were all partners in producing the car.
Anyone could stop the line any time they saw something wrong. Unheard of when General Motors was running the factory; so if that can happen in a car factory, I presume it can also happen in a factory that makes air conditioning units. I don’t know where the levers are for changing the mind-sets of the people who run these companies, where they can ... do small experiments and take small risks in the hope that they will motivate the workforce and create loyalty.
Tom Perić: That’s a very balanced view. Let me ask one final question. Is Professor Schwartz happy in his work?
Barry Schwartz: I am ecstatic about my work. Look, I have bad days.
Nobody has worked where every second of every day has all the attributes that I’m talking about ... and for most academics, it’s really never about the money. Academics get paid pretty badly considering how much education they have, and the wage scale is quite flat; you’re never going to get rich as you move up the wage scale, and I don’t think anybody chooses this work for the pay.
It’s really all about the conditions, and then what creates disaffected academics is if you start feeling like the bureaucracy at your institution is so oppressive that you can’t do your job. The people who run the place are your enemies.
They’ve certainly taken all of the kinds of joy and challenge out of elementary to high school education. You’re just following a script, and that drives good teachers out of teaching.
Barry Schwartz is the Dorwin Cartwright Professor of Social Theory and Social Action at Swarthmore College and the author of Why We Work.