“Everybody’s workin’ for the weekend” – Loverboy
While it may be true, as Loverboy noted back in 1981, that many of us are “workin’ for the weekend,” that’s not a great situation to be in, psychologically speaking. Psychologist Dan Ariely, author of The Upside of Irrationality, studies human behavior and motivation, especially as it relates to the workplace. We want more from life than a vacation at Club Med, he says:
In pre – and early industrial societies, where basic survival is a daily struggle, most people aren’t in a position to seek meaning in the workplace. But in the knowledge economy, Ariely observes, work becomes a central part of identity. Meeting a stranger on an airplane, we’re likely to talk about our careers before anything else.
If work is a large part of who we are, what makes work (and therefore our lives) meaningful? In the field and in the lab, Ariely finds that people want big challenges, some autonomy in pursuing them, a bit of healthy competition, and a sense of completion. He cites his own experience climbing a (small) Himalaya. It was awful, he says. Miserable and cold. But it stuck with him as one of the key experiences of his life. Would he do it again? Absolutely. A slightly bigger Himalaya next time, perhaps.
Bosses and corporate structures that don’t offer workers these motivators, or that thwart them capriciously in pursuit of greater efficiency, are likely to create unhappy and unmotivated employees, which is obviously in nobody’s best interest. Miserable drones and drudges are ineffective even at mindless tasks, let alone the creative, idea-driven jobs that fuel our economy.
I remember when I was at MIT and my assistant basically filled out one part of one form as most of their job in terms of doing accounting. Then somebody else would do another part of the form and somebody else would approve it.
I think we are weighing an Adam Smith kind of efficiency against meaning in labor, and I think the scale often tips too much towards efficiency and not enough toward meaning.
This post is part of the series Inside Employees’ Minds, presented by Mercer.