Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Should We Care More About Our Work - Why?

Like it or not, most of us have to work to make a living. Our work defines us more than our ancestors, educational attainment and even our relies affiliations - so do some people claim. Speaking of the way of working, two things matter most – attitude to work and competence in doing work. 

There are those who visibly enjoy their work and for them work is a means of living by a higher principle, often an irresistible inner call. Interacting with such people leaves us charged and uplifted. One instantly feels that such people care about what they are doing and they put themselves into it. They have put more of themselves in the work than the kind of lip service or “commitment” people earning huge bonuses often profess having before they leave for better pastures.

Sometimes when we get lousy customer service, we know we have met one of those for whom work is a miserable tenure of drudgery. “I hate my job” is a label they carry everywhere and dealing with them usually leaves one annoyed and dissatisfied. 

When people in an organisation spend hours explaining why something requiring about 1 minute of attention and not taking anything away from anyone cannot be done for a customer, no sane person can consider this efficient or good behaviour. In spite of efforts to justify it as being ‘company policy’, it is delusional self-deception and gross inefficiency.

Should we care intensely about our work or just work with satisfactory competence?

Is there a tension between caring intensely about what you do and just doing it with satisfactory competence and earning a living? Yes, it is an ancient conflict and no modern technology or software upgrade can resolve it easily. 

What does care mean here? Does it mean pay more attention to how we work, the content of the work, or the importance we put on how others see and value our job and position? 

There are two ways of approaching the task of resolving the conflict. 
  • One is the reward perspective, the answer to the why question. 
  • The second is the perception perspective, the answer to the how question.

Why should we care intensely about our work? If work is our identity, what we do defines us. Employees are almost always evaluated on the basis of their market worth. This is the amount the employer is willing to pay for a combination of skills, effort and motivation. So, if we care intensely about our work, we have to be clear if we love our work for the benefits (e.g., salary, bonuses, prestige, social position etc.) or the content of the work. 

The benefits measure or pay satisfaction is the most common as it is easy to measure and more concrete. Pay dissatisfaction often decreases commitment, increases stealing from the workplace and significantly affect turnover (Currall et al., 2005). 

Pay satisfaction is only a part of job satisfaction (Tremblay, Sire and Balkin, 2000) and other parts may weigh more than unhappiness with salary and the employ remains in the job. 

Research shows that workers who believe in a future promotion in the next 2 years report higher job satisfaction while past promotions have a fading effect on job satisfaction (Kosteas, 2011).

On the other hand, if we care about what we do because we love what we are doing e.g., we believe that we are building the best house in the world or the persons involved in our work need our utmost commitment or the teacher is convinced that he can teach students to think critically, then the measurement of our commitment slides from a market value orientation towards an inner yardstick of morality, ethics and values. 

If the question becomes “Can I live with what I am doing?” the degree of introspection needed is much more intense and personal than just an evaluation of market worth in money.

Cultural Variations for Job Satisfaction

Research findings (Bauer, 2004) show that there are huge variations in how people living in different countries are satisfied with their work. It's not that people in rich countries are happy, while workers in poorer countries complain or the reverse. It's not also directly related to weather. People in lovely weather countries can also complain, a lot. 

Only 11.6% in sunny Portugal along with 14.4% in Spain are very satisfied while 53.8% in Denmark report being very satisfied. Only 0.8% in Ireland hate their job, while 5.1% in Sweden and Greece hate their jobs. 

Significantly, the spread of people 'fairly satisfied' ranges between 41.2% in Denmark to 68.8% in Portugal. 

Consider the following findings (Sousa-Poza and Sousa-Poza, 2000):

  • Japanese workers report the third lowest job satisfaction levels
it would be very tempting to blame dissatisfaction on the "Samurai code", which is often used to explain everything about Japan researchers cannot explain properly.

  • Easter European former Soviet block countries (Hungary, Russia, Bulgaria, Slovenia and Czech Republic) were rock bottom in job satisfaction

Now, if we think that being former communist countries explains that, what about this finding?
  • 10% of workers in USA were dissatisfied with their jobs

So, the link between job satisfaction and culture is very strong, but rather complicated.  
Our relationship to our work is an excellent yardstick of our values

The how question probes our relationship to the process of work we are engaged in. If we answer this with a performance evaluation yardstick, the kind that most workplaces use, our worth can be expressed by the monetary value of what we are seen as producing. 

Rather often we hear remarks like “At ABC Corporation, we require 110% commitment.” or “You have to give 110%”. 

If you start plotting the sum of your commitment, effort, skills, competence and motivation all lumped together as personal input on a scale from 1 to 100%; you can quickly find the lower limit for your job. This is the minimum input, which would get you fired immediately. Any input more than 100% is insane. Rather to your dismay, you would notice that monetary or extrinsic rewards (e.g., bonus) might not be directly linked to your input increase (let’s say from 85% to 99%). To add to this, you might soon notice that someone else in the same company or elsewhere gets much more than you and would that spoil your day.

The less meaning we derive or the less appreciated we feel our work is, the more compensation we need from work.

Now, if our answer to the how question is found by using an inner yardstick (e.g., "I am proud of what I am doing", or "Seeing my students sing beautifully makes me so happy!”), the intrinsic rewards of our work is independent of market situations and other people’s whims. This way we can be happy and content even if we are underpaid or get scant recognition from our bosses.

To put it simply, ask yourself: Do we need our work more than our work needs us? 

We all need to figure the answer for ourselves. It would seem that some people are highly valued but in the end, no one is irreplaceable.

If you don’t care about your work, don’t expect that your work will care about you! 

Buon lavoro as the Italians say!

  • Currall, S. C., Towler, A. J., Judge, T. A. and Krohn, L. (2005) “Pay Satisfaction and Organizational Outcomes.” Personnel Psychology, 58 (3), 613-640.
  • Kosteas, Vasilios, D. (2011) Job Satisfaction and Promotions in Industrial Relations: A Journal of Economy and Society, ISSN 0019-8676, 01/2011, Volume 50, Issue 1, pp. 174 – 194.
  • Tremblay, M., Sire, B. and Balkin, D. (2000). “The Role of Organizational Justice in Pay and Employee Benefit Satisfaction, and its Effects on Work Attitudes.” Group and Organization Management, 25 (3), 269-290.
  • Sousa-Poza, A. and Sousa-Poza, A.A., ‘Well-being at work: a cross-national analysis of the levels and determinants of job satisfaction’, Journal of Socio-Economics , Vol. 29, No. 6, 2000, pp. 517-538. 
  • Bauer, T.K., High performance workplace practices and job satisfaction: Evidence from Europe , Discussion Paper No. 1265, Institute for the Study of Labour (IZA), 2004, available at: