I have approximately 17 years of post-first-degree work experience. And should I choose to count my pre-university work experience, which saw me, clerk, for my dad’s property development business, and later moonlighted as a professional photographer and my in-university work experience where I served on several students’ committees, consulted with the university’s department of Students’ Affairs – a gig which resulted in the writing and publication of my first book, the Students’ Survival Kit: A guide for Undergraduates (https://oluwakoredeasuni.com/students-survival-kit/) – and led several students’ initiative including one to mobilise resources to power our electronic workshop laboratory at those times when the public power utility was loadshedding and the university’s backup plant was insufficient, and another where I served as the student liaison with the committee saddled with organizing a national Physics conferences in Nigeria, then I might be well able to claim about 22 years of work experience.
In all of this experience, I have had the privilege of being both an individual contributor and a manager of people. One thing that continues to intrigue me is motivation.
Why do people show up, and put in their best effort – even if back-breaking – only to return the next day and repeat the process?
In the beginning, I thought it was only about the money. In our hyper-capitalistic and materialistic world, where even the most basic materials (food, shelter, and mobility) all cost a dime or two – and add to that, the marketing industrial complex raising the art of signalling to the sky, further fuelling our need to fork out more money to procure not the most fundamental in form and function of the things that satisfy our basic needs, but the same things packaged in ways that signal to others that we know what is good we are better than them. Think of the iPhone, believed by many to be unarguably the best smartphone out there, but a device which at its best form lags behind cheaper Android alternatives in terms of functionality. But most who own iPhones and those who aspire to own one cannot be convinced otherwise – never mind, many will never get their money’s worth out of the device, at least not before Apple releases the next relatively under-resourced but category-defining iteration of the device.
n the beginning, I thought it was only about the money. In our hyper-capitalistic and materialistic world, where even the most basic materials (food, shelter, and mobility) all cost a dime or two – and add to that, the marketing industrial complex raising the art of signalling to the sky, further fuelling our need to fork out more money to procure not the most fundamental in form and function of the things that satisfy our basic needs, but the same things packaged in ways that signal to others that we know what is good we are better than them.
But, in my own experience, there was more driving my motivation and commitment than money. Take for example clerking for my dad whilst I was in high school, I really did not have a choice except carry out the instructions my dad had laid out for me – in the morning before leaving for school, I have to clean his home office, collect the day’s newspapers and place them on his desk, put out the sign to let people know he is open for business; and in the afternoon, once my homework was done, join him in the office to complete random tasks, answer the phones, update ledgers and/or tag along with him to development sites to check progress etc. And I showed up daily, but I wasn’t earning an income.
Consulting with the Students’ Affairs Department whilst an undergraduate at the Olabisi Onabanjo University in Nigeria was not also driven by money or other economic reason. I recall my shock when I was asked to pick up a message at the Students’ Affairs Officer’s office after I had delivered a presentation to incoming students on how to manage their new-found, but quite tricky freedom as undergraduates, and upon opening the envelope I found a university cheque addressed to me. Upon inquiry, I was reliably informed that all speakers at those types of university events are reimbursed for their time and costs of participation. That was new to me, and that was not the last cheque the university will write me, in fact at the end of my undergraduate career, it would seem as if I had gone to college tuition-free – but that is the story for another article and day.
And when I started to volunteer for civil society actions, like the United Nations Standup Campaign – aimed at creating awareness at all levels of society of the commitments world leaders have made towards eradicating poverty, hunger, inequality and other global ills globally by 2015 (https://www.un.org/millenniumgoals/), there was no promise of any economic reward, and I volunteered from circa 2005 until 2009, leading initiatives in line with the recommendations of the UN Millennium campaign.
I could go on, but I am afraid this may start to read like my curriculum vitae – which is not the point here.
In my many roles as a people manager, I have also seen that whilst economic satisfaction is important, it is not the only important thing that drives colleagues, direct reports and others I have associated with professionally.
In their book: Freakonomics, authors Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, established via experiments that motivation stands on three legs: economic, social and moral. Arguing that being paid or who pays more for the same type of work, may be able to attract and retain talent; however, talents often balance their economic need(s) with their values (morals) and talents always have a preference for work that transfers social status – perhaps in similar ways touting the latest iPhone makes a teenager generate the required social status to belong? A summary of the book is available here: https://www.zenflowchart.com/blog/freakonomics-book-summary
Additionally, a 2018 Harvard Business Review (HBR) article titled “The 3 Things Employees Really Want: Career, Community, Cause” authored by Lori Goler, Janelle Gale, Brynn Harrington, and Adam Grant explores these ideas further. The authors present their own three prongs of motivation for a talent: career, community and cause – which are similar, though a tad more expansive when compared to those proposed in the book Freakonomics.
- Career is about work: having a job that provides autonomy, allows you to use your strengths, and promotes your learning and development. It’s at the heart of intrinsic motivation.
- Community is about people: feeling respected, cared about, and recognized by others. It drives our sense of connection and belongingness.
- Cause is about purpose: feeling that you make a meaningful impact, identifying with the organization’s mission, and believing that it does some good in the world. It’s a source of pride.
They argue further in the article that: “(t)hese three buckets make up what’s called the psychological contract — the unwritten expectations and obligations between employees and employers. When that contract is fulfilled, people bring their whole selves to work. But when it’s breached, people become less satisfied and committed. They contribute less. They perform worse”.
In the same HBR article, the authors continued: “In the past, organizations built entire cultures around just one aspect of the psychological contract. You could recruit, motivate, and retain people by promising a great career or a close-knit community or a meaningful cause. But we’ve found that many people want more. In our most recent survey, more than a quarter of Facebook employees rated all three buckets as important. They wanted a career and a community and a cause. And 90% of our people had a tie in importance between at least two of the three buckets. The complete article is available here: https://hbr.org/2018/02/people-want-3-things-from-work-but-most-companies-are-built-around-only-one
I have been in the front seat of performances by managers who are not aware of this social contract and carry on like all that matters is the written word in their direct reports’ contract and not the spirit of those letters. Some of them, query every minute the direct report is not on their seat – which is Ok if they were working on an assembly line and not being at one’s station impacts the entire line for the entire time the one is missing, but falls adequately on its face if the team is working in a knowledge environment, where perhaps them not being at their desk for a few minutes may be in part them fulfilling a part of their expectation of the social contract between themselves and their employer. And sincerely, the list of observed atrocities which directly or indirectly erode the social contract is quite long.
In viewing some of the work I have done previously that was not driven by economic reasons, I find some truth in both submissions from the authors of the book Freakonomics and the HBR article referenced above:
Working for my dad without any expectation of being paid, was partly fuelled by ignorance (no one told me kids get paid for working in the family business) and partly by how I was raised. The traditional Yoruba culture required that children obey all instructions dispensed by the elders and also insists that elders are never wrong (I know better now, though). And in general, alignment with cultural values often forms the basis of one’s morality.
Working as a student liaison officer, consulting for the Students’ Affairs office in college, and volunteering for the UN Millennium Campaign – are all pieces of work that align, again, with my moral beliefs that all should care for the other (this might connect with those same cultural believes I alluded to earlier) – and transferred social equity, some of which I have converted into access, if one considers my early post-first degree jobs in the civil society sector in Nigeria and later at the globally focused citizen participation organisation CIVICUS.
Whilst this piece is by no way an exhaustive look at employee motivations, it is sure a good place to start, and I am certain there are credible and qualified experts out there that can assist with providing further clarity on the issue and even help foment a strategy to help teams and businesses take forward ideas to keep employees motivated.
If there are any takeaways from this piece, it would be that:
- Businesses should continue to reconsider their value proposition to employees and the broader society. And ensure that their offering to employees balances out all three elements of the social contract. As keeping talents happy isn’t only about the value the business creates for the employee, but also the social status working for the business confers on the employee as well as the alignment between the business practices and values and generally accepted principles of being good.
- Managers should understand that their direct reports are not working for the business solely because they have no choice, rather, they are exercising their choice by working for the business (this is true in the vast majority of situations) and they (managers) should as such restrain themselves from treating colleagues and direct reports in any way that makes this exercise of choice continuously difficult to the point that employees elect to trigger their choice to leave the business – we have all heard that employees often don’t quit their employers, rather they quit their managers.
- Employees who may have not considered why they are doing the work they are doing may need to begin to consider this. With clarified thoughts about their goals, comes the added benefit of making awareness-driven and logical decisions as opposed to purely emotion drive ones.
PS: In a 2023 article published in the January Issue of the Harvard Business Review and titled: Rethink Your Employee Value Proposition The authors: Mark Mortensen and Amy C. Edmondson add a fourth dimension to those explored above, development and growth. The article is available online here: https://hbr.org/2023/01/rethink-your-employee-value-proposition
About the cover image, I asked the text to image generator craiyon.com to paint me a contemporary image of motivated employees at work, and I selected one of the images it created. To view all images created by this generative AI, for the prompt i described above, please click here: https://oluwakoredeasuni.com/wp-content/uploads/2023/08/Craiyon-Your-FREE-AI-image-generator-tool-Create-AI-art-2.png