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Why Do People Come to Work?

The title of this essay provides a useful question for leaders to ask. Knowing what employees want out of work encourages leaders to either help employees be fulfilled or filter out those employees whose expectations are unrealistic or are counter to the ambitions of the organisation.

Let us start with the assumption that all human beings have needs that they are seeking to meet.

Smart leaders will understand that many of those needs can be met in the workplace. If a leader is seeking to gain the commitment of the workforce it is important that a leader understands those needs and how they may be accommodated in the workplace. Many studies have shown that employee fulfilment is closely correlated with high productivity and organisational performance.

If we examine a hierarchy of human needs (similar to the Maslow categorisation), we will generally find the following broad category of needs:

  • Physical
  • Emotional,
  • Intellectual,
  • Spiritual

All of these needs can be fulfilled, at least in part, in the workplace.

All employees want their basic physical needs met. That means we should have concern for their safety and well-being in the workplace. It means we should remunerate them sufficiently to take reasonable care of themselves and their dependents.

Surprisingly though, money in itself is not a great motivator. Most job satisfaction surveys I have seen rate remuneration no higher than fourth or fifth as a job satisfier.

However it is also important we don’t get too idealistic here. There are still many employees, particularly those with young families and mortgages, who desperately need their weekly pay packet. However once our basic needs are met and we have a reasonable level of financial security, other issues become more important.

There is also confusion introduced here between people who want monetary reward for its own sake and those who utilise salary as a marker of their status.

The second set of needs outlined above is our emotional needs. We are social animals, and even the more introverted of us have the need to have positive relations with other people. This is such an ingrained part of our humanity that those who struggle to relate to others, like those who are autistic, are judged to be mentally disabled.

Many employees enjoy the social experience of coming to work. Whilst there are toxic workplaces where interpersonal relations are fraught and difficult, there are many more where employees enjoy each other’s company. For many, workplace relationships are a large part of their social interactions. We have heard many times for example of those manual workers who have won the lottery but still continue to work because they enjoy the social contact with their workmates.

But of course the more socially adept of our workforce have rich social lives outside their work environment and are not reliant on the social gratification they get from their work environment for personal fulfilment.

As well I have seen many workplaces where employees are obviously having a great time but the work isn’t getting done. That obviously can’t be sustained in the long run in a competitive environment. But I have also seen many Government owned organisations where such lack of productivity has been tolerated for many decades at the expense of the taxpayer.

Even so there will be many employees, particularly those with the capacity to make the most difference in our organisations who will fail to be satisfied with the prospect of merely coming to work to socialise.

It is interesting that many managers believe that their requirements of a job somehow vary greatly from their own employees. In discussions with many managers over the years they invariably say the things they enjoy about their jobs are such things as:

  • Autonomy,
  • The ability to make a significant difference,
  • Variety in their work, and
  • Opportunities for personal growth.

They seem somewhat surprised when you suggest that many of the people who work for them share such aspirations. In the more traditional organisations, managers give little thought to such needs and instead of seeking to motivate their workforce they rely on positional authority to get results. Employees in such organisations are largely reluctant to do their jobs and are unable to compete with those organisations with committed employees who have bought in to the purpose of the enterprise.

But even here we need to take care. Not all employees have the same needs in a job as we do. I can remember in the early days of trying to establish self-managed teams we found that some employees couldn’t cope. They didn’t want to be part of the decision-making process and were happier just being told what to do. That taught us the lesson that when recruiting for such positions we needed to make sure we selected psychologically robust people with a high tolerance of ambiguity.

Let’s be clear though, the employees in your organisation that are going to make the most difference are not compliant, order-followers but those who are committed to the purpose of the enterprise and are prepared to utilise all their talents in advancing its cause. The leader must work at finding opportunities for the personal development of such people, ways of expanding the scope of their authority and tapping their knowledge and innovation.

Finally we need to look at how we can help fulfil an employee’s spiritual needs.

What are our spiritual needs? They are the sense of meaning and purpose we need in our lives.

I call the process of making work meaningful for employees The Management of Meaning. (I won’t dwell on this in this essay having addressed it a number of times before. If you search through the archives of my blog essays you will find a number of such essays.)

In essence if an employee is to be truly motivated they need to be convinced that the organisation is making a positive contribution to society. The enterprise needs to have social, even perhaps, a moral purpose. Leaders need to be able to articulate this to show the positive impacts of the work of the enterprise on society at large. They then need to be able to make connections for employees between their individual roles and the organisational out comes. Every employee needs to feel that they are contributing to making positive societal outcomes. That is what makes work meaningful and that helps fulfil the employee’s spiritual needs.

It is indeed a wonderful thing that if a leader understands the people in the organisation, the organisation will prosper by helping those people fulfil their personal needs. Now that is truly a win-win outcome! In the end the desired result is satisfied employees and good organisational outcomes.

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  1. 5 Comment(s)

  2.   By Tim on Oct 15, 2017 | Reply

    Ted, I think it may be useful to maintain the distinction between why people come to work and what motivates them at work. Your article traverses this conceptual line in a number of places. Sensitivity to patterns of thought and behaviour on each side of this line can be very revealing.

  3.   By esther on Oct 16, 2017 | Reply

    Have a nice break .. my roses are out .
    I always read your essays but no time lately to comment on your views. Will place on a New a years ‘list’xx

  4.   By tedscott on Oct 16, 2017 | Reply

    Lovely to hear from you Esther. My roses are just finishing!

  5.   By tedscott on Oct 16, 2017 | Reply

    You may be right Tim, but it seems to me that putting aside economic necessity gaining satisfaction at work is probably the greatest motivator to turn up to work!

  6.   By Tim on Oct 17, 2017 | Reply

    Ted, I do agree with you. I just don’t think we should be hasty in putting aside economic necessity. The reason I say this is because we often don’t get above or beyond economic necessity because of our perceptions of security (or, perhaps, our feelings of insecurity). And there are many factors in the workplace that play into our perceptions / feelings of security. In my experience, productivity improvements must take feelings of (in)security into account, along with motivation.

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