Why We Work

I just finished reading a book entitled, “Why We Work” by Barry Schwartz. The book has three core messages that really resonated with me:

  • – The evidence that purpose is the primary motivator of behaviors is overwhelming
  • – The conventional wisdoms that formal, particularly financial incentives are the primary motivator of behavior is wrong and destructive to high performance
  • – Deep socialization, particularly the creation of institutional processes that are self-fulfilling, has perpetuated adherence to incorrect conventional wisdoms

Overall, there isn’t much new in this but it is good summary of other research. In particular, Dan Pink, who he does not cite, has covered lots of this territory, particularly the importance of purpose to motivation.

One of the parts that I really liked was where he suggests that in a downturn the conventional wisdoms are exactly the wrong thing to do. Decreasing investment in people and increasing micro-management, which is the typical response of most organizations to financial pressures, moves organizations away from the motivations and innovations that pull organizations out of a downward spiral. These cuts make organizations worse, accelerating their decline. It is completely counter-intuitive to most organizations to spend more on their people and give more discretion in bad times, but that is actually the right thing to do to support recovery.

As many of you know, I have often discussed how ingrained the conventional wisdoms are about learning and organizations and how it doesn’t make a lot of sense to keep doing the wrong things, yet people keep doing it.

What is disappointing in the book is that he does a great job of describing how bad it is, but doesn’t give any guidance about what to do about it. So, let me try to offer up some ideas for an approach to create more enlightened behaviors.

Using the classic view of – is this a knowledge issue or a motivational issue? Do people know about this research and are not motivated to use it or not know it in the first place?

My suspicion is that most executives generally know that they should be investing in people but don’t really know what it means or how to do it. So, their knowledge is superficial and therefore insufficient for people to act on it. There is so much known about the science of motivation and leadership – very little of it supporting the conventional wisdoms – that people can know a lot.  But, it isn’t readily accessible and it doesn’t make sense to people – unless you are already a humanist.

From a motivation perspective, what executive has gotten fired in the last decade for being mediocre? None that I know. Therefore, the leadership team doesn’t have much motivation to learn about these opportunities and to implement them.

Maybe this is the time and place for a revolution in organizations.  Maybe, it is time for everyone to be become a purpose driven leader, living a purpose, sharing knowledge and creating opportunity.

Are you ready to be a true, purpose-driven leader of your organization?

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