Reconciling Success and Happiness at Work: Matching work requirements to individual motives

by Brian Brittain on September 14, 2014


The Problem

“I have no idea why I am working on this.” “This job is not a good fit for me.”  I feel like I am in over my head.  The targets and expectations are just unrealistic.”  “I wish my boss could appreciate the true value I could bring.  I am bored with the level of work that she has me working on.”

Versions of the above stories, I hear on a regular basis. Having spent 35 years working with organizations I have to conclude that most employees like to feel they are doing a good job, while being stretched to the limits of their capability, while being strongly motivated to do the work that is stretching them.   It is the manager’s job to ensure that the conditions are there to increase the likelihood of the above employee experience.

Designing Meaning and Fit into the Work Assignments

When assigning a task to a subordinate, all managers should be thinking about two very important conditions to ensure the employee’s success in accomplishing the task and experiencing full engagement and happiness while working on it.  The first condition requires that the manager match the complexity or difficulty of the work with the capability of the subordinate carrying it out.   Work that is too complex for the level of capability will result in anxiety for the employee.  Work that is too simple will result is boredom.  These two symptoms, boredom and/or anxiety are both causes of stress and distraction and will immediately or eventually lead to marginal performance.   This first condition of matching complexity of the task, with the capability of the one working on the task increases the likelihood of success in carrying out the task, through focused attention, commitment, and applied skill, all directed to the work.

The second condition for success and happiness engages an important aspect of capability which is motivation.  Motivation is enhanced when the manager clearly describes the greater benefit achieved by the output of the employee’s work, thereby creating buy-in.  We are social beings and like to know how what we do, as individuals, adds value to the larger social framework and community.   When this second condition is communicated well, you have conveyed meaning by designing into the work the opportunity for the employee to express their innate desire to contribute to something larger and important.  Focused attention is enhanced when the employee understands and believes in the greater importance or benefit of the overall result to which their work contributes.  When these two conditions are met, first, aligning complexity of work with the capability of the worker, and secondly, creating context for the task assignment; the manager has set up a situation where the employee will likely be absorbed in the work of the assignment with full commitment and capability.  When one is totally absorbed and capable in one’s work through these two conditions the result is more likely to be both success and happiness at work.

When managers, or the leadership/management system in the organization, have consistently met these two conditions for employee success and happiness as part of their processes of assigning work, the result will likely be excellent organizational performance, supported by a psychologically healthy, happy, and productive corporate culture.   If the employee lacks clarity regarding what they are doing and why they are doing it, they will likely experience confusion and mis-trust, which contribute to personal stress and isolation in the organization system.   Chronic stress and isolation lead to employee burnout, morale problems, and organizational failure over time.

When I refer to complexity or degree of difficulty of the work being assigned, I am talking about the relative length of time required to complete the longer assigned tasks in the role.   Working on these longer tasks in combination with other day to day tasks corresponds with the degree of complexity of the role.  The longer the tasks in a role, the more complex the role is.  The complexity of the work is a result of the number of moving parts and systemic interrelationships that have to be taken into consideration while working on accomplishing the longer tasks, in addition to the shorter tasks in the role.  Painting the white line down the middle of the highway takes less time and involves fewer variables and relationships to consider than the actual constructing of the highway.  Almost everybody is capable of painting the line (if not always walking it).  Deciding when the line should be solid or broken doesn’t require a lot of capability.   Few are capable of holding in their heads and managing the complex task of building the highway itself.

Codifying Capability

As complexity of role or task increases so does the requirement for capability.  By capability I am referring to four factors that need to be considered.

  1. Cognitive capacity: the innate raw horsepower or mental complexity one brings to the complexity of the task assigned.
  2. Skilled Knowledge:  the information one can draw on and apply from memory based on studying,  skills training, and previous work experience.
  3. Motivation:  the degree to which the work in the task or role satisfies one’s basic intrinsic motives.  Does this work have meaning or greater purpose?   Does one naturally value the work assigned? Does doing this work allow one to get ones needs met?
  4. Self and Social Awareness:  the degree to which one has the self-awareness to pause, reflect, understand and appreciate one’s motives, values, and personality traits.  From this place of awareness, one can self-regulate and connect effectively in order to align and mobilize others around the task at hand.  In what ways does one need to dial up or dial down aspects of their innate temperament in order to complete the task effectively?

What Motivates?

All four of the above elements are essential to judging capability, but I want to focus on the third one I listed above: motivation.   I believe motivation is the least understood and overlooked of the four elements.  What motivates us is innate, individual, and hard-wired and therefore contributes to our uniqueness as a person.  By hard-wired I mean that what intrinsically motivates us today as adults is a function of the particular genetic makeup we came into this world with, which was then molded by early childhood experience.  This developing motive structure becomes hard-wired in our adolescent years.  I don’t mean to say that this determines our values and behaviour, but it definitely informs and strongly influences them.    Therefore, as adults, we are all motivated by different things, and subsequently value different things, which drive different kinds of behaviour in all of us.  Some of us are very idealistic and like to get involved in all kinds of important causes to make our community or society function better.  Others may be more motivated by power and will naturally focus their attention and work on getting those influence and power needs satisfied through leading others to get the work done.   We are all driven to get our needs met, and work is an important place for those needs to be met, potentially through the kind of work with which we are tasked.  I have a strong motive for curiosity and learning.  I have an intrinsic need or motive to “figure things out”.  This is why I am now absorbed in writing this piece, on a summer morning up at the cottage.  The process of writing this article and potentially developing more clarity on this subject for myself and others make me happy.  Right now this work makes me happier than reading an engrossing novel on the deck.  (It is kind of cold today, anyway.).

Our unique motive structures don’t change substantially throughout life.  We cannot significantly adjust them to fit the work.  They are what they are.  We need to fit the work to the unique motive structure, as these structures drive us and need to be satisfied. Where there is not perfect alignment between motive structure and the work to be done, we need to scaffold support around that lack of alignment.  An example of this scaffolding would be, if one is not motivated to take care of the details, then one needs to create a support structure that makes it easier to manage the details and mitigate the risk associated with one’s tendency to let certain things fall through the cracks.  An example related to this was explained to me by a CEO client of mine.  Jeff, an extremely creative and visionary CEO of a large international company, was without a finance background, so he relied heavily on the partnership with his CFO when making decisions.  His CFO was well grounded in the details and numbers.  Rather than Jeff developing the financial capability he was missing, he decided to “scaffold” around his deficit.  Jeff claimed his #1 success factor as a successful CEO was a tight partnership with his CFO.  He scaffolded his weakness in financial acumen and lack of interest in the details with this partnership, rather than trying to develop them in himself. The CFO became his anchor, keeping Jeff’s creativity and leadership charisma grounded in the big picture and the broader economic reality.

Dealing with our Weaknesses:  Whether to Change or Scaffold

Returning to the manager/subordinate working relationship and what is required for both success and happiness,  the manager AND subordinate need to understand as best they can the subordinate’s motive structure and make sure the work being assigned is aligned with that motive structure.  If the worker’s capability (four elements) is too far removed from the nature of the work, then the wrong person is in the role.  However, if the gap between capability and work requirements is judged to be small enough, and therefore amenable to personal development and change or scaffolding (i.e. managing), then the energy and attention on the part of the manager and organization needs to be applied to developing the appropriate external resources and support to compensate for the capability/work gaps.  If the capability gap can be closed through personal development, then the appropriate resources to help the worker develop themselves should be provided.  If the development required is deemed unrealistic, then the manager must think in terms of scaffolding the gap.

One very effective way of scaffolding, which was mentioned in the first section of this article, is to create and articulate a strong enough overarching goal that connects with the employee’s intrinsic motives to compensate for the pieces of work not aligned with those motives.  Here is a personal example of how I managed to motivate myself to clean out the garage and sustain its orderliness such that my wife’s car could fit inside.  My wife is motivated by order.  Clean tidy spaces make her happy.  I could care less, as this is just not part of my motive structure.  Order is not motivating or important to me, but it is to her.  Whenever Elizabeth mentioned the need to clean the garage out, as an entertaining weekend activity, I would deflect and avoid…for as long as I could.  As I said earlier, I am motivated by curiosity and learning, and also by approval of others who are important to me … like Elizabeth.  Finally I realized what was required to motivate me to be attentive and absorbed in this work.   When I framed this dreary task as an opportunity to listen to some podcasts of interest, with headphones, and do something that would make my wife very happy, I set to work and was able to sustain and focus my attention.

The Appropriate use of Willpower

I want to emphasize, framing a task such that it aligns with our intrinsic motives is very different than applying willpower to a task.  Willpower is something we occasionally use to overcome the lack of alignment of our motives and the task at hand, but it is not sustainable.  Willpower is like a muscle located in the brain that gets tired easily if overused.  Therefore, it is only a temporary solution and, once utilized, has to rest until it can be used again in an emergency.  The other reason willpower is not sustainable is that it is usually a response to the motive of somebody else in power who wants to enlist us.   Willpower is not required by us, when we are self-motivated to do a piece of work. If I had only worked on the garage because my wife thought it was important, I would have had to apply willpower and may never have completed the task (or if I did, it wouldn’t have been a happy experience).

There is another interesting way this interplay of motivation and organizational scaffolding plays out.  Over the years I have noticed that mission-driven organizations (charities, NGOs, hospitals, schools, etc.) over-rely on employee motivation or passion for the cause and, therefore, the work.  By over-rely, I mean that developing management systems in order to support or scaffold work and performance gets neglected.  Alternately, an organization that doesn’t have this mission-driven luxury (e.g. a mining company) to motivate its employees will generally have very strong management systems (e.g. setting clear performance goals and objectives, reviewing and giving formal and informal feedback and coaching on feedback, career management, etc.) that have been designed and implemented carefully to help motivate the employees toward successfully completing their work. I am working with a medical school that develops and teaches curriculum to medical students working in remote and rural conditions.  The staff and faculty of this school are extremely motivated by the mission.  It is a great one.  However, ten years into this game and they are realizing that mission and vision are not enough.  The romance is over and systems are required to support people doing the work or mass burnout of staff and faculty will occur.

In conclusion, as a manager assigning work…

  1. Ensure that the work you are about to assign touches and activates a sense of meaning and purpose in the individual being assigned the tasks.  Anticipate and answer the question…”why is this work important?” Get them to the point where they can think or say…”Okay, I get it.  I see how my tasks fit into a bigger picture that contributes to a larger community”.
  2. When assigning tasks, consider the four elements of capability listed above to assess and determine whether the individual’s capability is aligned with the work. If there are significant gaps between any or more of the 4 elements, then look for a different candidate.  If there is alignment or relatively close alignment between capability and the work, then proceed to the step below.
  3. To ensure that the motivation to get the job done is there, make sure that the work assigned is aligned with the intrinsic motive structure of the individual.  In other words, make this work as much about achieving the subordinate’s needs as it is about achieving your needs as a manager and the needs of the organization.
  4. Assuming there is relatively good alignment, but not perfect, between the complexity of the work and individual capability, then decide whether capability can be personally developed or whether the gap needs to be scaffolded and how.
  5. As manager, it may be your job to provide the necessary scaffolding (resources) or the development support for the subordinate to be successful and happy in the work.

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