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(Second in a series of articles inspired by the ideas of Barry Schwartz. This article
synthesizes Schwartz’s ideas with those of Michael Maccoby.)
Necessity is a Universal Value
“The theory (that work is motivated exclusively by money) has lasted because it engages so many drives and has some meaning for everyone. It has been the most reliable theory of motivation for the industrial age. The meaning of money may be different according to our values, but everyone wants it…”1Michael Maccoby
While work can be defined by its relationship to necessity – the origin of our capacity to work is inextricably linked to individual and group survival needs2 – a tendency to reduce the significance of work to the compensation one receives for it is a major source of misunderstanding from which a variety of negative consequences flow.
While our capacity to work originated in association with the need to survive, in his classic study of motivation in the workplace Michael Maccoby identified eight “Value Drives” that have evolved in association with our capacity to work. The fact that human needs are simultaneously values is implicit in the concept of a Value Drive: even the felt sense that our life must be sustained is both a need and a value. The statement “I work because I need to survive” , for example, expresses a value – i.e., survival. Survival (or Necessity) is distinguishable from other value drives in the sense that is universal.
Different values are present to different degrees among different workers, and different situations stimulate a variety of drives within the individual. While the feeling that one needs to survive is universal, the felt sense of Necessity is just one value drive among many and is not always predominant. Depending on the situation and the individual, other Value Drives may be more salient.
A Multiplicity of Values Drive Work
Different character types are driven by different values, and different Value Drives operate within the same individual depending on the situation. The dominant drive for an expert may be Mastery, for example, while others may be most motivated by the sense that what they are doing matters (Meaning). Maccoby categorized eight value drives:
- Survival (Necessity)
- Relatedness (the drive for Attachment and Community)
- Pleasure/Comfort (the desire for work to be comfortable or fun)
- Knowledge (the drive for Understanding and Information)
- Mastery (the drive for Competence, Achievement, Skill, Autonomy, and Power)
- Play (the drive for Exploration, Adventure, Creativity, and Innovation)
- Dignity (the drive to feel Respected and manifest Integrity)
- Meaning (the feeling that what one is doing matters and that one’s work contributes to the creation of the kind of world within which one wants to live).
For Barry Schwartz, the dominant way of thinking about work obscures awareness of the spectrum of values that drive it. By focusing exclusively on Money – the Necessity/Survival Value Drive – an ideological tradition that had its inception with Adam Smith begets attitudes and behaviors that demean work by reducing its significance to the compensation one receives in exchange for it. 3
A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy
“What (Adam) Smith was telling us is that the only reason people do any kind of work is for the payoffs… And as long as (work) produces adequate payoffs, what the work itself consists of doesn’t matter… Because there was no reason to work except for the paycheck, (people) worked for the paycheck. So it came to be that Smith’s mistaken idea about why people work became true.”Barry Schwartz
Schwartz defines a self-fulfilling prophecy as “a false definition of a situation that evokes a new behavior that makes the originally false definition true.” The false notion that dominates our thinking about work resides in the notion that people work exclusively for pay. This false idea becomes true
“if you create workplaces that essentially deprive people of any other satisfaction that might come from work…. You create a workplace where people show up only if they’re getting paid, and then you claim, ‘You see, I told you, the only reason people work is to get paid.’”
While division of labor greatly contributed to our productivity and prosperity, it also created a situation where each worker was doing “the same trivial thing over and over again, day after day”. The objective of management during the industrial age entailed simplifying and routinizing tasks so that minimal training or expertise were required to perform work. The worker’s capacity to deeply engage with her work – and to exercise the autonomy, discretion, expertise, and creativity that had been present in the trades, crafts, and the professions prior to industrialization – disappeared.4 Work was transformed into the ceaseless repetition of a specific set of rote tasks. Workers would receive compensation in exchange for the time spent engaged in toilsome and otherwise unrewarding activity. Work evolved into an activity that was no longer expected to engage value drives such as Meaning, Creativity, or Mastery:
If you dumb work down, if you routinize work, if you over supervise work, then why would you show up except to get paid? The division of labor, Adam Smith’s great contribution to our material prosperity, essentially created a work situation where there was no reason to be there except for a paycheck.
A vicious cycle takes hold. As discretion, engagement and meaning are taken out of work, it becomes more rote and routinized, and people derive less satisfaction from working and feel less inclined to perform it. As people find work less satisfying and less meaningful, they do it less well. As they do it less well, their supervisors take even more discretion away.
Cash Incentives Crowd Out Other Values
Since everyone wants money, why not add cash incentives to increase motivation to work? After all, if an individual is motivated by the drive for expertise (Mastery), finding creative solutions to a problem (Exploration), or the drive to understand the contours of a job-relevant problem (Knowledge), wouldn’t increasing compensation increase her motivation?
Such an expectation would seem to be confirmed by everyday experience: some motivations are clearly additive. One may be motivated to exercise regularly by a desire to improve one’s health, for example. But if one finds a way to greatly enjoy physical activity – perhaps one engages in exercise with friends with whom one enjoys spending time – then each motivation (the desire to improve health and the desire to socialize) would reasonably be expected to increase the frequency with which one exercises.
It turns out that financial incentives are different. Economist Bruno Frey describes a process of “motivational crowding out” that has been replicated in numerous studies.5 When financial incentives are added to situations in which people are motivated to work well without them, it has the effect of undermining, rather than enhancing, the motivations people already have. Some of the best-known studies include:
- A study of behavior among parents who had their children in day care. When exhortation to come on time to pick up children had no effect, a fine was levied for failing to meet that obligation. The imposition of fines led to a substantial increase in the percentage of latecomers. 6
- A study of Swiss citizens asked to allow Nuclear Waste Dumps in their communities. 50% said yes, citing their obligations as citizens. Yet when they were asked if they would be willing to have the dumps in their communities if they were to receive an annual payment equivalent to six weeks’ worth of an average Swiss salary, only 25% of respondents said yes. Adding the financial incentive cut acceptance in half. 7
These studies are among many that show that adding money can undermine other sources of motivation. How might we account for this?
In the daycare center example, parents knew it was wrong to come late prior to the imposition of a fine. But when the fine was introduced, the moral dimension of the behavior disappeared: Picking up their children became a financial transaction. Imposition of a fine became a price to pay for longer childcare rather than a violation of a legitimate rule, and, in so doing, “demoralized what had previously been a moral act”. Financial incentives reframe situations: they change the question from “Is this right or wrong?” to “Is this worth the price?” The consequences of such a change are not negligible: In the Swiss study giving a financial incentive decreased moral motivation in half.
By focusing exclusively on compensation as a source of motivation we may reduce or eliminate sources of motivation essential to our capacity to derive meaning from work. Work quality is also undermined, as values other than material incentives are ultimately responsible for the quality of work that is produced.
All italicized Quotations are taken from:
Maccoby, Michael. Why Work. Motivating and Leading the New Generation. Simon & Schuster. New York. 1988.
Schwartz, Barry. Why We Work. TED Books, Simon & Schuster. New York. 2015.
Schwartz, Barry. “Incorrect Ideas About ‘Why We Work’ Warp Our Organizations… And Our Views of Human Nature”. Transcript of Interview with Schwartz can be found at:
1. Maccoby acknowledges that the meaning of money has itself changed: in relatively wealthy societies, “the concern for relative income gains is a far more powerful source of work motivation than any basic survival needs.”
By 1759 Adam Smith had already observed that concern for social status had eclipsed “supply of the necessities of nature” as motivation for even the “meanest labourer”. In his Theory of Moral Sentiments (Edinburgh, 1759), Smith wrote:
“To what purpose is all the toil and bustle of this world? What is the end of avarice and ambition, of the pursuit of wealth, of power and pre-eminence? Is it to supply the necessities of nature? The wages of the meanest labourer can supply them. What then are the advantages of that great purpose of human life which we call bettering our condition?
To be observed, to be attended to, to be taken notice of with sympathy, complacency, and approbation, are all the advantages which we can propose to derive from it. The rich man glories in his riches because he feels that they naturally draw upon him the attention of the world. The poor man on the contrary is ashamed of his poverty. He feels that it places him out of the sight of mankind. To feel that we are taken no notice of necessarily disappoints the most ardent desires of human nature. The poor man goes out and comes in unheeded, and when in the midst of a crowd is in the same obscurity as if shut up in his own hovel. The man of rank and distinction, on the contrary, is observed by all the world. Everybody is eager to look at him. His actions are the objects of the public care. Scarce a word, scarce a gesture that fall from him will be neglected.”
Despite abeyance (for some) of the threat to biological existence, the salience of money continues to reside in the felt sense that it is necessary for survival.
3. See https://workosophy.org/2022/03/15/what-do-you-really-really-want-to-do/
“Ensconced in a job to fulfill a myriad of economic obligations, one’s imagination contracts, such that the question of what one “really, really wants to do”, if it arises at all, is applied to oneself exclusively in one’s role as consumer. The question becomes not ‘what we want to do’ but ‘what do we want to buy?’ We are held captive by compensation we receive for the time spent at our jobs, such that our freedom to buy what we want tends to obscure our awareness that we are not doing what we want.”
4. See: https://workosophy.org/2022/01/27/our-job-system-was-a-wholly-strange-and-new-invention/
5. Frey, Bruno; Jego, Reto. “Motivation Crowding Theory.” Journal of Economic Surveys. Volume 15, Issue 5. December 2001.
6. Discussed in: Schwartz, Barry. Why We Work. TED Books, Simon & Schuster. New York. 2015.
7. Discussed in: Schwartz, Barry. Why We Work. TED Books, Simon & Schuster. New York. 2015.