Happy IN work vs. Happy AT work

I had an email from a reader who gave me permission to anonamise it and share:

[After working in sales and feeling something was missing] I moved into the care sector, retrained and was running the company after 3 years. He’s where it differed, there was and still is very little margin in the sector for any financial rewards. Care practitioners are on slightly more than minimum wage and do not have a reasonable fuel allowance. In domestic care they are accountable legally for the care/support they give and must attend quarterly supervision (by law) and have to retrain yearly. They work 24/7 365 on a rota.

Last year I moved to a new company and had to explain to 300 staff why their duties would expand due to ward closures, their area of travel would increase, but I wasn’t or rather couldn’t pay them any more. They were not happy. As qualified care practitioners, they were on less than staff on supermarkets check-outs.

I had of course checked the budgets, asked the directors for an increase and took another look over the council contract, where I realised that the contract was worth less than the previous year. When I queried this, I was told “carers do it because they care, not for the money“.

How about that for assumption. I handed my notice in soon after…

Classic management screw up, making an assumption about their people ‘they do it because they care, not for the money.’

The huge flaw in that logic is not understanding the difference between being happy IN work and happy AT work. The carers were happy to be IN work in a profession where they had real meaning and improved people’s lives, but it´s impossible to be happy AT work if you’re paid so little that money is a huge, pressing stress and you’re worried sick about paying the bills.

This is all too common in the charity sector where employers believe it’s enough for people to be working for a cause they feel passionate about and so don’t pay people enough or create a good working environment. At best, this is de-motivating, and at worst it makes great people leave and take their talents elsewhere.

Conversely, in many corporate jobs, including sales much of the time, the opposite is true. You get paid really well and have a nice comfortable life so you feel happy AT work but if you feel like you’re just being paid in order to make even more money for shareholders then there’s very little to make you happy IN work. And again this can cause great people to lack motivation or leave.

The key therefore is to create organisations with a very clear, higher purpose that people believe in and want to be a part of, and to ensure that you pay people enough to take money off the table as an issue so that they can focus on work. Once these base level needs are met you can then work up to higher levels of human satisfaction through recognition, social belonging and mastery of their craft which will take their motivation and performance to soaring heights.

Why SMART objectives aren’t always smart

SMART

Ever been in a meeting where people are discussing objectives or goals? Someone invariably says, ‘We must make our objectives SMART!’ and everyone else nods sagely in agreement. We often use the same logic with personal goals.

The idea is sound enough. If your goals are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound, it focusses the mind, allows you to say for certain whether or not something was achieved, and you can keep tabs on whether you’re on track along the way.

But there’s a big and often overlooked problem with this type of goal setting, and that’s our old friend human nature. I’ve written about intrinsic motivation before – it means the inherent satisfaction in working on something, above and beyond any material rewards (or threat of punishment.) Psychologists have discovered that the way we set goals affects our motivation and the extent to which we meet them. So whilst SMART objectives can be useful some of the time, you have to be careful and avoid using them in all situations.

Take learning a language for example. You could set yourself a SMART objective something like ‘Learn French and score an A at the test before the end of the year.’ This is what phychologists call a ‘performance goal.’ Getting the A is the target. The alternative is setting a ‘learning goal’ which would be more along the lines of ‘Improve my French to get more out of my holidays there, make French friends and get absorbed in the culture.’

The learning goal is not SMART. It’s actually pretty vague, but what it promotes is mastery of the topic – that is, continual improvement towards perfection (which of course can never be fully reached.) The big difference is that mastery is one of the factors which really motivates humans. Performance goals less so. In studies with children, it has been shown that they perform better at tasks when the goals are learning, not just performance. For example, when the focus is on a specific measure of performance, it has been shown that people work hard to achieve it, but that they often stop there, short of their potential to do even better. They are also less able to apply the skills to new situations than with a broader learning goal.

So next time you’re setting some goals think carefully about whether a SMART objective or learning goal will actually help to motivate and get you there.

Finally, another plug for Daniel H. Pink’s excellent book, Drive which talks more about goals and motivation and has the citations behind these insights on goal setting.

Why your efforts at motivating your people are probably destructive

Carrots

Most businesses attempt to motivate their people using the carrot and stick method: Offer rewards for things you want to see more of and punishment for anything you don’t. Why is this so popular? Simple, because it works! If you offer your team a fat bonus if they hit a target, they will probably work like mad through the night to achieve it. So conditional ‘if-then’ rewards are common at work.

But there are several inconvenient holes – gaping holes – in this accepted wisdom which science has conclusively proved, yet businesses largely have not accepted. These are covered in Daniel H. Pink’s excellent book, Drive.

For example, when you offer conditional rewards, the motivational effect is short-term. It will get your team to work harder today but not tomorrow, next month and next year. At worst it becomes like a drug and so more and more of a ‘hit’ is required to sustain performance. Also, it has been proven that people perform WORSE when a carrot is dangled in front of them because it adds pressure and distracts from the task in hand. When you offer if-then rewards, it also takes away what psychologists call ‘intrinsic motivation’ – the pleasure of actually performing the task itself. And this again reduces long-term motivation and the drive to do the absolute best you can at the task rather than just enough to get the reward.

So what actually DOES motivate people? Assuming you have a good base level of rewards (like salary and other benefits in place so that a lack of money doen’t distract from work) then there are three factors:

  1. Autonomy: People are most motivated when they have control over how to do their own work.
  2. Mastery: When people believe in their capability to improve and are able to continually do so.
  3. Connectedness: To be contributing to a higher purpose, together with others.

So the best way to motivate your people is to replace the carrot-and-stick with a culture that builds autonomy, mastery and connectedness. Then you will tap into your people’s natural drive to do great work.
This is a key reason why democratic companies perform much better than their peers. They set their people free to work in their own way to meet a higher purpose, and this brings out the best in them.

I haven’t always got this right myself. When I was managing a sales team, I deliberately avoided having commission payments for the consultants because I worried that this kind of if-then reward would be counter-productive. But with hindsight I don’t think I went far enough. We still had individual sales targets for each team member and I remember the pressure that they felt because of this. I thought it was a necessary evil, but I wonder now if I could have taken a step back, gone through the company finances with the team and allowed them to make up their own mind about how much business we needed to win and allow them to self organise and work together to meet the underlying goal of ensuring we brought in enough business. My role would have been relgated to more of a facilitator and helper, but I think we may have had better results.

If you think your company has a motivation problem or that you need some sort of ‘incentive’ scheme, then it’s possible that you are looking in the wrong place and what you really need to do is work on the culture to allow intrinsic motivation to thrive.

What have your experiences been of trying to motivate people at work or having someone else try to motivate you?