Why bother? The reasons behind why people go to work
Money, Status, Interest or the Work Environment what motivates you to go to work?
The easiest thing for an employer and an employee to understand is financial motivators. If a person is motivated by money, it’s easy to incentivise them to be more productive; simply pay them more. If you produce 100 lines of code a day and I need you to write 150, increasing your pay by 50% is likely to help if you’re driven by money. Notwithstanding piecemeal work often being considered a questionable practice, and the fact that counting source lines of code (SLOC) is an ineffective way of measuring productivity, recognising the factors behind it helps to identify when to offer what. Obviously, if it’s cold hard cash, there is little point offering you a promotion, interesting work or flexible working hours in return for doing more.
According to DoSomething.org, over half the global population are living in poverty on less than $2.50 a day. In addition, in 2015 WHO research indicated that diarrhoeal disease was the second largest killer in low-income countries. Based on this, I think it seems reasonable to deduce that for most people, the number one reason why they come to work is money. Trying to earn enough to provide for your family, keep a roof over their head and get access to essential medical care is, for many, a matter of life or death.
Slightly harder to understand is status. If two people both have the title CEO, it’s reasonable to assume they are of equal status; however, when I was the proprietor of my own company, I didn’t have the same status amongst my peers as, say, Elon Musk. Status is more than the just a title, it encompasses the responsibility, accountability and authority that an individual has. If you come to work because you get to make big decisions, manage big budgets and / or lead a big team, it’s safe to say that status is a key motivator.
Status can however, be traded against money. Criminal defence barristers for example start their careers defending individuals who have been caught in a cycle of re-offending due to social / drug / mental health issues and are paid poorly due to the ever-decreasing legal aid rates. The money and glamour is non-existent in comparison to that which is portrayed in popular legal TV shows. However, for those that maintain their practise and progress to senior juniors or take silk (QCs), their salaries can rise dramatically. So, why then do they go on to become judges, which requires a substantial pay cut? The answer may lie in the fact that as judges, their status within society is a noble one; their position allows them to shape law and improve the justice system.
After money and status, the next potential motivator is interesting work, but it can be difficult to understand for employers and employees alike. As an example; I love writing code, I find it an incredibly creative process, especially if what I am producing has an ability to interact with people. No doubt I have too many ideas in my head and not enough time left on the planet to compile and execute them all. However, many of my non-tech colleagues have little or no interest in code or computing in general. The subtleties of choosing one design pattern over another, how to implement an elastic infrastructure to mimic business needs and the debating religiously over where to put a semicolon are, frankly, lost on them. I believe they view technology as something between disappointingly over-ambitiousness and delightfully amusing when it does (finally) actually work. There is no way they would ever want my job, it just doesn’t interest them.
Imagine an employer’s dilemma if the bulk of their employees are motivated by money and status and a new innovation emerges that causes their industry to suddenly change. Failing to adopt the technology could both affect the organisation’s revenues and profits (money), and their reputation (status). This can lead to two huge HR problems. First, without the technology the business relies on people, they can no longer afford to pay. Secondly, if the business hesitates in making a decision to change it may find it difficult to attract new employees who have the skills and knowledge needed to thrive. In my experience the individuals required by the business will be motivated by interest, and will not want to be part of a culture that is focused on money and status.
Revolutionary technology has done this many times; printing presses, refrigeration, and the sextant have all played a part in upsetting the status quo. Many of the inventors I have met appear to struggle with financial hardship and low status outside of very small, close-knit peer communities. So why do they do it? They love what they do / want to create products that make a difference.
Environment encompasses all the intangible reasons behind why we go to work. I remember a passionate debate in the technology department of one of my previous employers. The subject was should we play music in the building? Many people were at polar opposites, arguing the merits for a group playlist versus everyone wearing headphones and listening to their own tunes versus those who preferred working in silence. My thoughts were if everyone could inject just a small amount of this energy and passion into our work, we’d build amazing products. Given how diametrical opposed the views were, it was a lost cause. It did not matter who won the debate as at least half the department would be unhappy; I just hoped it was not the half I was responsible for.
I also remember a serious management conversation about cutting costs. There was a sizeable amount of money set aside for weekly treats for all staff. To an outsider, it looked like an expensive, and unnecessary indulgence that we could easy stop; however, it was very clear that within the company it was a well-loved token and there would be uproar if it came to an end. People even joked that we could halve their pay, but we weren’t to touch the treats!
Attracting and retaining a workforce that are exclusively motivated by only one of these factors is not healthy; it tends to result in too many like-minded people with similar beliefs and ideals.
For example, having sales motivated by money, management engaged through status, researchers and engineering driven by interesting work, and customer success enabled by the environment, will cause disagreements. However, you need to have vigorous debate on the important issues that the company faces and how to resolve them, as doing so will force you to decide what type of company you are. If you communicate this honestly, the likelihood is that you’ll attract a great workforce motivated by a variety of factors. Their combined experiences, knowledge and insight will improve your product or service, and the overall satisfaction of your customers and employees.
As a leader, being truthful about what currently motivates you will make all the difference when the alarm goes off at 7am and you ask yourself ‘why am I doing this?’. Understanding your motivations will help you become much more accepting of others, ultimately enabling you to lead a diverse and highly motivated team.
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