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Michael Maccoby
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Michael Maccoby

Michael Maccoby is an anthropologist and psychoanalyst globally recognized as an expert on leadership. He is the author of The Leaders We Need, And What Makes Us Follow.

Why do we work?

In response to this week's On Leadership question: This has been a tough year for many organizations, wtih fewer employees required to do more with less. 2010 looks to be more of the same. How can leaders of such organizations motivate their people as they head into 2010?

Many people would be happier with jobs that make better use of their abilities. Even so, people do not work for money or survival alone. Even when necessity forces us to take a job, financial need is not the only reason we work.

Work ties us to a real world that tells us whether our ideas make sense; it demands that we discipline our talents and master our impulses. To realize our potentialities, we must focus them in a way that relates to the human community. We need to feel needed. And to feel needed, we must be evaluated by others in whatever coinage, tangible or not, culture employs. Our sense of dignity and self-worth depends on being recognized by others through our work. Without work, we deteriorate. We need to work.

In this still fragile economy, many people will be motivated at work they do not like mainly to keep their jobs for the sake of income and mental health. But a leader who wants enthusiastic collaborators needs to engage them in work that is meaningful to them. This can be done by focusing on four Rs: responsibilities, relationships, rewards and reasons.

We are motivated when our responsibilities are meaningful and engage our abilities and values. The most meaningful responsibilities stretch and develop us. Caring people are motivated by work that helps others. Craftsmen are motivated by producing high quality products.

We are motivated by good relationships with bosses, collaborators, and customers. Fun at work is motivating. So is appreciation for helping others.

Rewards can be motivating, but they can be overvalued. Of course, investment bankers will exhaust themselves for huge pay offs. And piece workers, sewing garments or assembling gadgets, will work harder producing more finished products for the extra dollars. But there is no evidence that teachers will teach better to make more money. Incentive pay focuses a person on particular tasks, like teaching to the tests. It can stimulate a doctor to see more patients, but not treat them any better. Or it can strengthen a boss's authority by rewarding a subordinate for following orders. But if someone does not feel fairly rewarded compared to peers, incentive pay becomes de-motivating. People may be more motivated by public recognition and appreciation for their work than by money.

Reasons can be the most powerful motivators. Workers doing repetitive work on an assembly line during World War II were highly motivated because they were helping to win the war. The same work in peace time would be boring. People take pride in work that contributes to the well-being of others and the common good. Leaders who articulate a meaningful purpose, support good relationships, give people responsibilities that engage and develop them, and recognize exceptional work will most certainly gain enthusiastic collaborators.

By Michael Maccoby

 |  January 6, 2010; 5:21 AM ET
Category:  Economic crisis Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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I have to agree for the most part. When laid off in 2002 after working steady for 29 years, it was a total shock to my system when I realized, I could not find work. Completely dumbfounded by that realization.

How is that possiblle? I am a worker bee, I must work. I cannot, not work. That's insane!

I went through work withdrawals like a junkie. I became vexed that no jobs were available or so it seemed. I would have nightmares about the lay offs.

Many I've spoken with also claim to have suffered similar nightmares about job losses.

After some time, I realized there were several factors working against my finding work, any work at that time (2002).

Then the unthinkable happened again. My spouse was seriously injured on the job. That left him unable to work for a year and a half. Talk about a downward spiral totally out of your control, where you'll stop nobody knows. Good Grief!

In 2002 I was:
29 yrs older)
A Seasoned Experienced worker
Commanding higher pay rates, plus benefits...
Than say a younger person just starting out.

It's not that I demanded higher pay, but deserved it, as I worked hard to reach that level of pay. I paid my dues and earned my wage.

None of that mattered when jobs started disappearing in 2000 from the Silicon Valley.

Overnight buildings were emptied, thousands upon thousands of jobs lost.

By 2004 and still jobless, panicked is an understatement of severe maganatude. I finally was offered a position for $5.25 an hour.

Torn on what to do. I had to decline. It would not have saved us from the impending foreclosure.

We had to sell the house and move out of state before we lost it all.

Though we have recovered, the snowball effect on the economy keeps coming ten years later. Many states thought themselves immune from what hit California.

Refusing to acknowledge what claimed California, driving it into the ground was headed their way. They ignored all the signs. Hence, the entire country is now in the pits.

We had to reinvent ourselves (now in our fifties) as independent contractor's working an industry we never considered...AND in another state. None of it by choice, soley through necessity.

I must say, there is nothing like working for yourself! What freedom, peace of mind and joy at accomplishing such a task and getting back to work, were we belong (slightly tattered). Nonetheless - Happy worker bees, that'd be us.

Posted by: MyTwoCents4 | January 6, 2010 2:04 PM
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Quite true- money isn't the only reason people work. However, it does come in handy when paying the rent/mortgage or buying food, not to mention planning for old age.

Not everyone has the resources to work for free, and those that do (unless you're talking a hedge fund intern position) are probably not the best candidates.

Posted by: shadowmagician | January 6, 2010 12:11 PM
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The best thing employers can do to motivate their employees is to treat them with courtesy and respect.
People do a much better job if they feel valued and appreciated.
If your employer treats you with rudeness and disrespect, it's time to move on. No job is EVER worth giving up your self-respect.
The job market is tough right now, but not impossible, especially in the DC area. Don't be taken in by the media hype that's telling us all to "be afraid...be very afraid"...and to put up with whatever abusive treatment too many employers dish out because they think their workers will put up with it in the current job market.
The world is a fascinating place, and there are always new horizons out there and good work that needs to be done. Don't ever let the grinches of this world try to keep you in a bad situation. Use your intelligence, creativity, spirituality, and common sense to really LIVE your life and make things better for your family and yourself, and other people too.

Posted by: beth8 | January 6, 2010 11:22 AM
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