Our attitudes towards work – and especially to our own work – are so fundamental to most people’s contemporary existence, it’s little wonder that they fascinate us. Indeed, one of our more high-profile philosophers, Alain de Botton, has recently published a book of the topic – The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. So far, we’ve been too immersed in the pleasure (honestly) of blogging to read the whole book (although we’ll be publishing a review in due course), but his contribution to Management Today’s website certainly caught our eye.

Here’s one particularly intriguing snippet for a long, but thought-provoking piece:

We have to set the cheerful tone of modern management into context. For most of human history, the only instrument needed to induce employees to complete their duties energetically and adroitly was the whip. [ … ] But the rules of employment had to be rewritten with the emergence of tasks whose adequate performance required their protagonists to be fairly content, rather than terrified or resigned. Once it became evident that someone who was expected to remove brain tumours, draw up binding legal documents or sell condominiums with convincing energy could not profitably be sullen or resentful, morose or angry, the mental wellbeing of employees began to be a supreme object of managerial concern.”

As behaviouralists, this point rings a bell: motivation is central to so much of what we do. If we are going to change a situation, we have to be motivated to make the change – be it to the world around us or to ourselves. We can be driven to do many things, but we are motivated by those we wish to do.  Motivating is not about leading horses to water, nor really about making them drink; motivation is about the horse wanting to drink. And, if talent management and human capital really matter, about making it want to drink from the same pond more than once. 

De Botton also makes a comparison between recent times – an era of apparent management enlightenment, compared with human history before the late 20th century when staff were effectively slaves or chattels, to be treated with scorn. His concern and perception is that the current downturn means that:

… the gloves come off and power is more cleanly revealed again. So one of the benefits of the crisis is that it enables us to lower our expectations as to what work can deliver. Some of the greater existential questions disappear. Simply holding down an ordinary job and surviving comes to seem like reward enough. We should perhaps temper our sadness in these troubled times by remembering that work is often more bearable when we don’t expect it always to deliver happiness in addition to money.”

But another aspect has changed: we’re losing the era of the long career with a single organisation, the progression ladder and the ‘job for life’. While these aren’t yet extinct, we are now much more in the age of the ‘portfolio worker’ – a concept that can be traced back to 1989, when it was described by Charles Handy in his book, The Age of Unreason.

There’s another factor De Botton does more closely allude to: the rise of what Peter Drucker first defined as the ‘knowledge worker’. Employer-hopping, portfolio-working knowledge workers choose temporary or medium-term roles in the labour market, just as employers choose from among them. In times of downturn, it’s a proverbial buyers market, but downturns aren’t necessarily permanent.

The end of the ‘job for life’ and the rise of the portfolio career, the flatter, ’empowered’, and increasingly networked (and, indeed, the ‘virtual’) organisation are changing the nature of work as the employee experiences it. For those seeking rather than providing it, the world of work is one of increasing risk.  If we accept the principle of risk and reward, what motivation are we getting in return?  Are our concepts of motivating moving on in step with our changing environment? 

De Botton’s pessimism that we will return to the day of the stick and bowl of gruel doesn’t – at least in his online piece  – take into account that the recession isn’t terminating the age of knowledge workers, or the ubiquity of portfolio careers. As workers, we are still human capital.

Knowledge is an unusual commodity. It has to be created rather than acquired: knowledge – wisdom, understanding, intelligence – is an outcome of learning.  It can also be shared without being given away: indeed, we may gain from the process if we motivate the learner to ask informed questions.  In a knowledge-based organisation, knowledge sharing is an important process.  Peter Senge, author of The Fifth Discipline: The art and practice of the learning organisation, has commented:

Sharing knowledge occurs when people are genuinely interested in helping one another develop new capacities for action: it is about creating learning processes”.

But do we currently encourage competition for a pool of available reward at the expense of promoting greater collaboration? Shouldn’t we have our cake and share it?

The portfolio worker is also likely to hedge their bets by spreading their labour across a number of employing organisations.  If careers are no longer offered by organisations but assembled by individuals, motivational factors change. Just as organisations will vet the reputation of recruits and suppliers, they will increasingly vet organisations.  Both hands can feed, but equally both hands can be bitten.  If working for you develops their portfolio more in line with their wishes or provides a more agreeable working environment, your lower rate of pay may matter less.

And knowledge workers see their loyalty as being more to a profession – as a financial advisor, a copyright lawyer or web-site designer – than to an employer, especially where their ‘manager’ cannot demonstrate a higher level of professional membership. As Thomas Stewart commented in his book Intellectual Capital: The New Wealth of Nations:

The expertise to which a lawyer is most likely to defer is that of another member of her profession, not that of a boss. … When work is about knowledge, the professional model of organisational design inevitably begins to supersede the bureaucratic.”

Motivation in the positive sense – ie as opposed to fear – is not generic, but personal: human beings remain stubbornly diverse and individual.  Even as flexible labour markets strive to commoditise us, the trend towards knowledge-based organisations re-individualises us: our individual abilities remain individual. (Another of Charles Handy’s contributions to management and leadership thinking – the Motivation Calculus  – is relevant, as it builds on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to acknowledge the personal and individual nature of what drives us.)

But do our approaches to motivation recognise this?  Performance Related Pay rewards us individually (while raising questions about the distinction between individual contribution and team performance), but rewards us in one way: financially.  So should we reconsider how we provide rewards – and provide motivation? Appraisal is increasingly a dialogue about development needs and opportunities, but still tends to be married to defined roles; and appraisal still tends to be top down.

As we become looser collections of increasingly self-governing individuals, don’t we need to ensure that the motivation we provide – rather than simply expect – also becomes more individual? Can other methods be brought into play to identify what motivates the particular individual, and allows them to influence the shape of their reward? After all: in the labour market, organisations are not suppliers but customers.

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