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Motivation in the Workplace

How Do You Define Your Work?

What’s your motivation in the workplace? In our article leadership quality, we related a famous story about three stonecutters.

In this story, each was asked what he was doing. One answered that he was earning a day’s pay. The second that he was a stone cutter, cutting stone. Only the third replied that he was doing something other than the obvious. He was building a cathedral…..

We used this story because it demonstrates the leadership quality of seeing the bigger picture. The third stonecutter saw his job in the context of something much bigger. He alone saw that he was helping to create something.

Of course, that’s all well and good if you’re part of creating something rare, great and noble. What though, if you’re not building a cathedral? What if you’re cleaning floors, or sweeping streets, or serving at a checkout? Or, for that matter, sat at a desk typing on a computer! What then is your motivation in the workplace?


Motivation in the Workplace: Crafting a Calling

Motivation in the Workplace

Professor Martin Seligman told a wonderful story. He recounted visiting a good friend in hospital when an orderly came into the room.

The man proceeded to take out pictures from his bag and fix them to the wall, beyond the foot of the patient’s bed. Seligman asked him what he was doing.

“My job? I’m an orderly on this floor,” he answered. “But I bring in new prints and photos every week. You see, I’m responsible for the health of all these patients. Take Mr. Miller here. He hasn’t woken up since they brought him in, but when he does, I want to make sure he sees beautiful things right away.”

It’s this issue that Martin Seligman addresses in his book: “Authentic Happiness.” This hospital orderly, concluded Seligman, “did not define his work as the emptying of bedpans or the swabbing of trays, but as protecting the health of his patients and procuring objects to fill this difficult time of their lives with beauty. He may have held a lowly job, but he crafted it into a high calling.”


How Do You See Your Work?

The stone cutter story revealed three different responses to how the stone cutters saw their work. One thought he was simply earning a day’s pay. The second thought he was cutting stones. The third thought he was building a cathedral. Each indicated a very different view of motivation in the workplace. Academics and writers have tended to distinguish between three kinds of “work orientation”:

  • A job – earning a day’s pay
  • A career – a stone cutter, cutting stones
  • A calling (vocation) – building a cathedral

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You may do a job just to earn a weekly pay cheque. perhaps you’re not looking for other rewards and it’s simply a way to support yourself or your family. Or maybe you do it because it enables you to do other things in your life, such as leisure interests, study or community work. It may be an interim step until you find something else, or a necessity which you feel you can’t leave at the moment.

If you feel you’re in a career, this suggests a more personal and committed investment in work. You’ll almost certainly be interested in personal and professional development. You’ll probably (but not necessarily) also be keen to achieve promotion, status indicators and increased salary.

However, when it comes to a calling, you’ll have a passionate commitment to your work for its own sake. You’ll probably be doing what you love, or doing something that contributes to the greater good. Like the third stonecutter, you may feel you’re building something of social worth. Being enaged in a calling tends to be fulfilling in its own right.

These “work orientations” are not necessrily mutually exclusive. For example, you may be doing a job which pays for you to pursue your calling outside of work. Your motivation in the workplace might thus be quite different to someone who couldn’t see the bigger picture in what they do.

No matter how satisfying work might be, it would be a mistake to rely on our work as our only means of satisfaction in life. In fact there is evidence that happy people have a more balanced life, using roles and pastimes outside of work to help them to be happier. Our attitude to work will also alter at different times of our lives when we have different priorities.

Thinking about these “work orientations” may help you to think differently about your motivation in the workplace. However, wouldn’t it be better, in an ideal world, to do something we really loved for a living? To pursue a calling?

Can You Make Your Work More Like a Calling?

Some argue that we can regard any job as a calling if we re-frame how we see it. Rather like the hospital orderly in Seligman’s story. This is what Amy Wrzesniewski, a professor of Business at New York University, discovered when she interviewed cleaners at a hospital. Whilst she found that many only regarded their work as a job, many saw the greater good in what they did. Many saw their work as vital in contributing to the well-being of sick people and considered their work a calling. That was their motivation in the workplace.

Leaving a Legacy

Peter Drucker told a story about how a hospital adopted what came to be known as “Nurse Bryan’s Rule”.

A new hospital administrator, holding his first staff meeting, thought that a rather difficult matter had been settled to everyone’s satisfaction, when one participant suddenly asked, “would this have satisfied Nurse Bryan?” At once the argument started all over and did not subside until a new and much more ambitious solution to the problem had been hammered out.

Nurse Bryan, the administrator learned, had been a long-serving nurse at the hospital. She was not particularly distinguished, had not in fact ever been a supervisor. But whenever a decision on patient care came up on her floor, Nurse Bryan would ask, “Are we doing the best we can do to help this patient?” Patients on Nurse Bryan’s floor did better and recovered faster. Gradually, over the years, the whole hospital had learned to adopt what became known as “Nurse Bryan’s Rule”

One way of re-framing what we do is to think about our work as leaving a legacy. Building a cathedral is leaving a legacy but so is working for the benefit of family or loved ones. Even the small things we do can have a beneficial impact on others, like changing their motivation in the workplace. Perhaps your legacy is in the small things, such as a nurse asking a simple question, or an orderly brightening up a patients room with inspiring pictures. Certainly Nurse Bryan’s question is not a bad question for us all to ask: “are we doing the best we can to help our the people around us?”

Could that be your motivation in the workplace?

Can You Re-define Your Work?

Can you re-frame how you think about your work?

  • Do you see work as a job, a career, or a calling?
  • What contribution are you making,
  • What contribution would you like to make?
  • How could your work be more like a calling?

If work is more a job and less a career or calling, what other things in your life bring fulfilment and a sense of contribution? If these are missing, what can you do to create something new? When thinking about how people might re-define their motivation in the workplace, what better place to finish than with the words of Martin Luther King Jr.:

If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry.

He should sweep streets so well that all the host of heaven and earth will pause to say, here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.

The surprising truth about what motivates us

If you have 10 minutes or so to spare, it will be well spent watching this fascinating animation on what motivates us. Enjoy!




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