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Book Summary: Why we work by Barry Schwartz 

‘Why we Work’ examines what motivates us to get out of bed in the morning and go to work. 

Barry Schwartz is a Psychologist, author and famous TED Talker who dedicates himself to tackling what he believes to be the psychological plagues of modern living. His 2015 Ted Talk ‘The way we think about work is broken’ implored listeners to stop thinking about employees as simply cogs in a wheel and look for a deeper meaning to try and make work more satisfying. He says that focussing on pay has made society confused and unhappy and we should all be empowered to find great work. 

The book contains some key messages for employees and employers. You can learn the differences between a job, a career and a calling, and why it’s important. You’ll also find out why money isn’t the best motivation to work and instead employers should focus on autonomy, investment and missions. 

So let’s get started. 

 

Why do people work today? 

The reason why people go to work gives us an important clue into their experience of work. 

  1. Some people just see work as a job. They do it to pay the bills, buy essentials they need to live and any extras or luxuries that they might want. Work is something they need to do, but they’re unlikely to go above and beyond their main duties. 
  1. Some people see work as their career. They climb the ladder and see it as an experience of progress and growth, signposted by promotions, pay rises and more responsibility. These people tend to see work as more than just a job and expect much more fulfilment from what they do. 
  1. Some people see work as a calling. They work to make positive change in the world and see their work as a source of happiness. 

The holy grail for motivated employees is therefore, Schwartz argues, to make them see their work as a calling. He uses the example of hospital or educational administrative assistants who, although completing repetitive work, get to see the positive changes they make in the lives of others. 

 

What really motivates employees? 

Schwartz examined what employers can do to engage their employees and give them greater job satisfaction. Here’s a summary of his findings. 

 

Autonomy – when employees are given independence and responsibility, and are given decisions to make, they take more pride in what they do, as well as feeling more trusted and respected. Schwartz found that this impacted all levels, including entry level roles. 

Investment – employees feel more valued if their employer invests in developing their skills, whether it be time, money or effort. 

Mission – employees should feel that they are contributing to a powerful, overarching mission, that should permeate through their everyday tasks so they feel as though they are part of something bigger than themselves. 

 

Avoiding the vicious work cycle 

If a company is experiencing problems, or a down period, chances are they’ll reduce autonomy, investment and mission levels to compensate. However, Schwartz argues that this can make the problems worse and create vicious work cycles, where employee motivation lowers even further, performance drops and the company does even worse. 

Schwartz also identified some of the other main culprits of lack of employee motivation as overstructuring, micromanaging, and perhaps surprisingly, financial incentives. 

 

Why money doesn’t motivate people as well as you might think 

Schwartz uses the example of a case study in a nursery school where parents kept turning up late to pick up their children. The nursery decided to introduce a fine to parents who were late, but actually saw a 40% increase in late pick-ups. But why? Whilst before the fine was introduced parents saw being late as bad behaviour and felt guilty, they began to see it as simply an extra they could pay for.  

The relevance of this example here is it is showing that once money is introduced, behaviour transforms from being about integrity into a financial transaction. “The offer of money tells people implicitly that they are operating in the financial/commercial domain, not the social domain,” says Schwartz. 

People start to make sacrifices they normally wouldn’t when they’re offered more money, such as their mental wellbeing, work/life balance, unpleasantness from coworkers and so on, and this is an unhealthy way to look at your work.  

Instead companies should focus on making the workplace a happy, supportive and positive place with clear social incentives. 

 

Read our previous book summary, The Art of Negotiation 

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