Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Passion, People and Principles

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Jan 08, 2007

Responding to David Maister
the motivation spiral. The elements of this spiral are as follows: high motivation leads to high productivity and quality, which leads to marketplace success. In turn, this results in economic success for the firm, allowing the firm to be generous with its rewards, including high compensation, good promotion opportunities and challenging work. This atmosphere of ample reward breeds good morale, which results in high motivation:
Hm. This doesn't sound like motivation to me.

What we have is a cycle. OK. But for any cycle there needs to be a driver, something that makes it go. Otherwise you don't go around the cycle, you just sit there. What is the driver here?

It is this: "high compensation, good promotion opportunities and challenging work". But what if you don't find these particularly rewarding? What if they are not particularly motivating?

Every person needs a reason to perform. But this reason needs to be something over and above things that help you perform, otherwise they don't drive the cycle. But compensation, promotion and even challenging work are just things that help you do other things. But what other things?

It's as though you had a car, and everything you did with the car gave you rewards that had to do with the car - more gas, more chrome, a bigger engine. But eventually you realize, it's just a car, and for it to be of any real value, you might want to actually do somewhere and do something for some other purpose.

Eventually, if you are a high performer, you reach this point in the cycle, the point where you realize that simply working to get ahead isn't enough any more, that what you want is not merely to go faster but to actually go somewhere. And that's what this letter sounds like. And your response sounds like, "Buck it up, soldier." You're asking him to have faith in the spiral. But that's not good advice; it's not even kind advice.

As people become increasingly self-sufficient, this is becoming increasingly true: people do not work for the pay, they work for the work. That is, they do what they do because they believe doing what they do is inherently valuable. The wage is nice, and if they get good pay, that's a bonus.

This is completely absent from many companies today, especially Fortune 500 companies. These entities exist solely for the purpose of earning money for their shareholders. Now there's something to get you going in the morning! "Let's go! I have to go out and earn those shareholders another penny a share today!" Where's the value in that?

And if that's all you have (and if that's what you've been working 24/7 to do) then you're in pretty bad shape once you've realized what's going on.

First of all, you have to find something you actually do value (and making profits for shareholders ain't gonna cut it, not never). This could be something close to home like supporting your family, something more social like promoting literacy or housing or peace, or something spiritual like religion or enlightenment.

This is a hard call. You have to accept some sort of world view to find anything to be of value, and even then, it may be necessary to take what Kierkegaard called a "leap of faith" - you have start valuing something in the belief that this act will eventually lead to your actually valuing something.

Sometimes people have to go off on spiritual quests or into the wilderness or just on vacation to find this. Your writer should take a month off and go to Africa.

Whether or not you have some Big Thing to believe in or whether you have some simple everyday values, you can now look at your work in a new light.

Either your work supports the value or it doesn't. If it supports the value, there's your motivation (and you'll find that if you work with other people who support the value you'll even have a cheering section).

If it doesn't support the value, then it may at the very least be viewed as a resource pump. Your job gives you the money (and network, etc) you need to support your value in your own time. In this case, you need only be motivated enough to keep the pump going; save your real passion for your off-hours work (this is a pretty common approach for people who find their values in their family or their church - most companies care about neither, and never will, so people place their passion outside their work).

You may not like this advice - but I am honestly not going to tell someone to get all passionate about increasing shareholder value.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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