In this peculiar moment in time, some of us have the chance to think about our careers, and what motivates us to follow our chosen path.

During the pandemic, we’ve been more exposed to work that visibly makes a difference - healthcare, transport, logistics, food supply; those keeping the critical infrastructure of the country operating. Key workers have been rightfully recognised as heroic, and you have to hope they’ll continue to be treated as such by employers and government long into the future.

While many of us won’t necessarily consider a career in these areas (and who knows what opportunities the shaken-up economy will offer?), it’ll certainly give pause for thought for anyone feeling dissatisfied in their current job.

In the near future, will corporate managers still be able to motivate staff with the same rewards they always did?

Or will employees demand something more from their jobs?

Who's responsible for motivation?

Employee motivation, for much of industrial history, has been a bit of an illusion.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs suggests that human motivation is intrinsic. It asserts that once we’ve got our basic survival needs sorted, we’ll seek belonging, esteem, and eventually, enlightenment (“self-actualisation”). And what better place to achieve those than the workplace?

Abraham Maslow’s theories were developed in the mid-20th century. The Hierarchy of Needs was proposed in 1943, and has stuck around so long because it’s simple, easy to understand, and on the surface, is hard to disagree with.

It's also a very business-friendly idea.

Maslow was an organisational consultant alongside his career in academic psychology, and the hierarchy appealed to management thinkers. Management historian Kira Lussier explains:

"Why was corporate America drawn to the hierarchy of needs? They liked it because it offered both a grand narrative and master explanation for human psychology in a changing society and a practical guide to managing people."

From the 1940s onwards, it’s been misused by managers to put the burden of motivation on the employees themselves, rather than offer proper rewards for their hard work:

"One management thinker, the American psychologist Frederick Herzberg, used the hierarchy of needs to argue in The Motivation to Work (1959) that companies needn’t provide better benefits to workers, because better benefits had only made workers entitled, rather than increased productivity. Such is the dark side of motivation."

You wouldn’t want to work for that guy, would you?

Photo by Siavash Ghanbari / Unsplash

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) test shares a similar story.

The MBTI test supposedly reveals your personality type, along lines of introversion vs. extroversion, feeling vs. thinking, and so on. Many treat it as gospel, but it’s basically corporate horoscopes. After answering the questions it’ll tell you vague, complimentary things about your personality that you’re unlikely to disagree with.

The MBTI test was used throughout the 20th century by managers to categorise workers into their ‘ideal’ roles, and is still trusted by thousands to this day. It was invented, however, by a duo with no formal background in psychology.

The problem with putting workers into arbitrary boxes is succinctly put by writer Merve Emre:

"To feel that you are ideally suited to do your job means to do it well and, more important, to do it willingly — to bind yourself to it freely and gladly. This is the beauty of the indicator: It convinces everyone that they are exactly where they are meant to be, doing what they are meant to do."

Treating these motivational theories as gospel means giving workers a false sense of individuality, putting them in a quandary: if you’re perfectly suited to your job, you should be motivated and productive. Anything less is a failure.

So instead of putting the burden of finding meaning on the employees, how about we put it on companies instead?

The future of motivating jobs

So what happens next?

A big part of the answer depends on the strategic decisions made by governments. Nobody can predict what happens next in the complicated world of economics. Many of us won’t have the luxury of picking our work; it’ll be a matter of survival. If we really are heading into an economic depression, there’ll be many desperate folks that’ll take whatever work they can get.

But despite the hardships and tragedies suffered, for some people, the global ‘pause’ will cause them to rethink what really matters to them in the world of work.

Those of us lucky enough to keep our non-hazardous knowledge work might end up more conscious of what’s important to us and our communities. As we all face the prospect of losing businesses, loved ones, and even our own lives, we might start to question what we really want to do in life, and choose employers that support that.  

  • Can our work contribute to society and the environment, as well as making a profit?
  • Will spending all our efforts to enrich distant shareholders seems less and less attractive?
  • Will businesses that don’t ‘give something back’ survive in the new economy?

Whatever happens, the jobs of the future will have to provide what people want to keep them motivated:

Writing before the pandemic, Kira Lussier wraps it up poignantly in words that are even more relevant now:

"My argument is not that work shouldn’t be meaningful, or that pleasure cannot be found in work; my point is that we should think carefully before accepting managerial ideas of fulfilment through work, because they risk detracting from the economic and social structures that govern work. Work is work – no matter how many beer fridges or meditation seminars modern workplaces offer, and no matter how many well-intentioned trainers show slides of pyramids."

In the future, we might see through these gimmicks and choose to work for companies that really live their values instead.