When we find ourselves stuck in unhappy careers, it is often the result of a fundamental misunderstanding of what truly motivates us

Back in 1976, two economists, Michael Jensen and William Meckling, published a paper looking at why managers don’t always behave in a way that is in the best interest of shareholders.

The root cause, as Jensen and Meckling saw it: is that people work in accordance with how you pay them.

Many managers have come to believe this, too: you just need to pay people to do what you want them to do, when you want them to do it.

The problem with thinking about incentives in this way is that there are powerful anomalies that it cannot explain.

For example: some of the hardest working people on the planet are employed in charitable organisations.

They work in the most difficult conditions imaginable; they earn less than half of what they would if they were in the private sector.

Yet it is rare to hear of managers of nonprofits complaining about getting their staff motivated.

The same goes for the military.

So how do we explain what is motivating them, if it is not money?

Well, there is a second school of thought, which turns this thinking about incentives on its head.

It acknowledges that although you can pay people to want what you want, incentives are not the same as motivation.

True motivation is getting people to do something because they want to do it, in good times and in bad.

Frederick Herzberg, a thought-leaders on the topic of motivation, noted the common assumption that job satisfaction is one big continuous spectrum, starting with very happy on one end, and reaching all the way down to absolutely miserable on the other, is not actually the way our minds work.

Instead, satisfaction and dissatisfaction are separate, independent measures.

This means that it is possible, for example, to both love your job and hate it all at the same time.

Okay bear with me, let’s go deeper on what he says:

This thinking on motivation distinguishes between two different types of factors: hygiene factors and motivation factors.

On one side of the equation, there are the elements of work that, if not done right, will cause us to be dissatisfied. These are the hygiene factors: status, compensation, job security, work conditions, company policies, and supervisory practices.

It matters, for example, that you don’t have a manager who manipulates you for her own purposes or who does not hold you accountable for things over which you don’t have responsibility.

Bad hygiene causes dissatisfaction.

But even if you instantly improve the hygiene factors of your job, you are not going to suddenly love it.

At best, you just will not hate it anymore.

The opposite of job dissatisfaction is not job satisfaction, but rather an absence of job dissatisfaction.

They are not the same thing at all.

So, what are the factors that will cause employees to love their jobs?

These are what Herzberg’s research calls motivators. Motivation factors include challenging work, recognition, responsibility, doing work that matters, that changes lives and personal growth.

Motivation is much less about external stimulation, and much more about what’s inside of you and inside of your work.

The lens of Herzberg’s theory gave me insight into the career choices that my friends made.

Some of them had chosen careers using hygiene factors as the primary criteria; income was often the most important of these.

On the surface, they had lots of good reasons to do exactly that. They viewed their education as an investment, and therefore wanted to see a good return on that investment.

Yet, some of my friends had hopes of using their education to tackle the world’s most challenging social problems or pursue their dreams of becoming entrepreneurs.

Periodically, as we were all considering our post-graduation plans, we would try to keep ourselves honest:

“What about doing something you really love, tackling that social challenge, making a difference in people’s lives?” “Don’t worry,” is the response. “This current executive position I hold is just for a couple of years. I will pay off my study loans, mortgage, credit card debt, get myself in a good financial position. Then I will chase my real dreams.”

But somehow that early pledge to return to their real passion after a couple of years kept getting deferred.

It was not too long before some of them privately admitted that they had actually begun to resent the jobs they had taken, for what they now realised were the wrong reasons.

Worse still, they found themselves stuck.

Their lifestyles had expanded to fit their incomes, they have more accumulated debts and that is a trap that can be very hard to get out of.

The point is not that money is the root cause of professional unhappiness. No, it’s not.

The problems start occurring when money becomes the priority over all else.

The problem continues when you have satisfied the hygiene factors but still the quest remains only to make more money.

Herzberg’s theory of motivation suggests you need to ask yourself a different set of questions:

Is this work meaningful to me?

Will I have an opportunity for recognition and achievement?

Am I going to learn new things?

Am I doing work that matters?

Am I helping to improve people’s lives?

Once you get this right, the more measureable aspects of your job will fade in importance.

As Simon Sinek says: Don’t look for employees who will work for a salary, but who will work for a cause [paraphrased]

And as another saying goes;

Find a job you love and you will never work a day in your life.

Do what you love.

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