The motivation to work: What are you really striving for?

The motivation to work: What are you really striving for?

We all go to work at least five times a week. We spend more time working than we do with our families, and most of the stresses we experience come from work. But can you answer a really important question: What are you working for?

On the surface the answer is clear: we work for money so we can buy things and live. But that doesn’t explain it all. People on higher salaries seem to keep working longer hours, forever seeking the next level. 

Working for money

This is the most obvious answer – we work in order to be paid. This is true of people who don’t have a job. In terms of Maslow’s hierarchy this is right near the bottom. It represents the basic need of being able to pay your way in life – to afford food, accommodation, etc. The interesting thing is that many of us could live comfortably on a fraction of what we earn. I see people all the time that move out to work for themselves and spend a year or two earning very little before everything starts to click and earn an income comparable to what they were earning beforehand.

Money gives us security and it puts a numerical worth on the work we produce. It ties in to our self-esteem and can be a potent motivator (see financial incentives for sales performance, etc).

There are different forms of working for money. Some people will happily work 9-5 in jobs that aren’t challenging so they can cover basic costs and spend their evenings and weekends doing whatever they want.

Working for status

When people start to move beyond that basic need for money and start taking other benefits for working the social benefit starts to appear. When someone works at a large company with an established reputation then people respond in a way that helps maintain the benefit. Because work makes up so much of our lives our identity can get tied up with the company we work for and the work we do. If you tell someone you’re an accountant you’ll get a certain reaction. If you tell someone that you’re an accountant for one of the big four you will probably see a different reaction due to the assumption that your pay is higher.

Working for status comes in many forms – it’s not just tied to prestige. Many people proudly work for non-profit organizations. Doing work in a field that resonates with how you want to be seen socially is a really powerful motivator. It isn’t one that people usually want to acknowledge, but it’s there nonetheless.

Working to achieve

When you provide someone with a way of measuring their work or seeing their results – the fixation on the numbers or the ongoing achievements can be amazing. It can become a game to some people where they continually strive to beat their previous ‘score’ or previous level. (It might be sales figures, conversion rates, budget performance, public acclaim etc). As long as the next level is achievable it becomes an important part of why people want to turn up every day.

Beyond the task level and onto the career perspective, achievements are often tied to career advancements.  Striving to reach a higher level of the organization is a really important part of why people try their best. There seem to be fewer stories around these days of people who started in the mailroom and became the chief executive, but the mindset still exists: if I work hard and do what is required of me I will rise up the ranks.

Working to create

We talk a lot about work satisfaction, and typically the conversation is a negative one. We are satisfied if we have a boss that isn’t a jerk. We are satisfied if our work environment isn’t highly stressful. Instead of looking at what our jobs aren’t, the achievement motivator looks at what the job is.

When your work gives you the opportunity to have an impact on other people and the world at large the pay packet and the social status it brings tends to fade away. Even the chance of promotion becomes unimportant when you find yourself doing work that really matters to you. This is the most powerful motivator of all, in that people will continue through much greater adversity for this payoff than they will for monetary or social status pay offs. The saying is true – if you do what you love you’ll never work a day in your life. Some retirees continue to consult or mentor and stay in touch with old work colleagues purely for the intellectual stimulation and satisfaction of the job.

Working to be part of a fun team

Some are inspired by those they work with – the quality of people, opportunities to collaborate and the friendships at work. The people we work with can become like a family that gives us immense satisfaction. It may be that we love to help and coach others to achieve. Or the joy of seeing our team help others, through our work, can be very inspiring.

Working to retire

When we start to think from that wide perspective of our entire lives, many people talk about what state they want to be in when they retire. This comes back to ideals of security that has been created through generating and investing an income over the years. An early retirement is a dream for many people. Strangely, when you look at it this means that some of us working in order to not work. It is a delayed gratification, and an aim worth holding onto.

Considering the various motivators of work really helps us with resilience. When we are going through a tough patch and wondering where the motivation will come from to carry on it is good to consider all the ways work provides benefit. Work takes effort, it is taxing, and so we need to constantly remind ourselves that we do it for reasons that enrich our life.

What are your main motivators?

Let us know what you are working for in this quick SmartCompany poll.

Eve Ash is a psychologist, author, filmmaker, public speaker and entrepreneur. She runs Seven Dimensions, a company specialising in training resources for the workplace.


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