Is it money that gets us to do our jobs? A look at motivation and success

Education | International | South East
Dr Saima Rana

This article is by Dr Saima Rana, CEO and Principal at Gems World Academy and Chief Education Ambassador at Varkey Foundation.

Does money make the world of work go round? Is it money that gets us to do our jobs?

There have been many interesting attempts to answer this question, but recent research has thrown surprising light on the issues raised by these questions. Dan H Pink’s book ‘Drive’ is a fascinating summary of much of this research.

A quick summary of this research would be this: money makes you do your work if the work is boring, routinised, if it doesn’t require much thought or skill and if you’re not in charge of your tasks. But money is irrelevant if you find the work interesting, if its innovative, if it needs a lot of thought and skill, and if you’re in charge of what you’re doing. In fact, if you’re in the latter kind of job, then using money to incentivise can actually deter a person from working at the highest level.

Basically, if you’re interested in what you’re doing, if your work world is interesting and you feel you are an integral part of solving the challenges of the tasks ahead then you don’t need money as an incentive. Everyone needs enough money to live a decent life of course, but once you have that, money does nothing for people who are already interested in what they’re doing.

Great work is done by those who are excited by the job itself, not external rewards. So if you want people to do great work then give people control, challenge and something to be passionate about so that the job becomes its own incentive. So long as they can live well with the pay they get, money drops away as an incentiviser.

This is worth bearing in mind when we’re recruiting.

Where do we put the emphasis when we’re asking people to come join us – the money and other external perks – or the job itself? Too often we are tempted to think that we’ll get the best people if we offer them a great salary and free gym membership or what have you. But if you want great things to come from your business, be it a school or any other, then you’d be better off creating jobs requiring thoughtful, dynamic and passionate people than just offering big salaries in the hope of attracting the best.

When recruiting staff for a school what I like to emphasise in the recruitment literature I put out is what makes the job so interesting, linking it with the mission and values of the school, and what a successful candidate will be able to contribute to the whole endeavor. I make it clear that I want to recruit those people who have a passion for teaching, who see it as more than just a job to finance their mortgages, golf fees, wardrobes or holidays.

I make it clear that I want people who agree with the mission and values, who want to be part of our team, who wants to contribute, who are hungry to belong with us and make a positive, ambitious contribution. For teaching staff, the real heart of the matter is whether they are excited by the thought of engaging young minds in the business of education, of encouraging, guiding and inspiring students to strive for the best version of their dreams they can muster.

In interviews I like to tease out of candidates what they’re really interested in, to see beyond the platitudes. So, for example, I ask English teachers what book they’re reading at the time, math teachers which branch of math is their favourite, PE teachers what sport they play in their spare time. This is not me wanting to invade their privacy, but is rather an attempt to get an insight into what drives them, and whether what they are saying they want to teach is genuinely an enthusiasm for them.

An English teacher who isn’t reading a novel, a math teacher who can’t bore for Dubai on a particular abstruse branch of math, a PE teacher who doesn’t do any sport in her spare time indicates that they’re just not as passionate as I need them to be. Here’s someone who will do the job as a routine.

They will be jobs worth at best – by which I mean someone who will do exactly what they’re told to do and no more. Inspiration, innovation, passion, enjoyment, – the enchantment of teaching and learning – that will as likely as not be nowhere to be seen. For me, those enchantments are what makes anything meaningful – whether in a school, a business, a home, a club, or anywhere where people are involved.

Modernity sometimes seems to work against enchantment. Indeed, the great German sociologist and historian Max Weber, in writing about modernity, described the modern world as one that had become ‘disenchanted’, becoming an ‘iron cage’ that holds us all in a bureaucratic prison of isolated, routinised, boring and soul destroying tasks.

According to Weber, our disenchantment came about because modern societies separated power (politics and law), wealth (economy), Ideology (religion and thought) and human relations (society) into autonomous institutions, each with their own bounded set of rules and interests, all in perpetual tension with each other, driven by a rationality that’s all about efficiency which I turn feeds a sense of ‘anomie’.

Dull, dull, dull. And frighteningly meaningless. If life and work is just this, then we can understand why we might think money is just about all that will get us out of bed.

But we don’t have to live in the iron cage of disenchantment. Our lives, work lives included, can be enchanted. When we talk about enthusiasm, inspiration, passion, of having control and sinking into our environment so we feel connected to the tasks and everyone involved, then we are no longer talking about a world of lonely, contracted, bureacratised, routine-addicted individuals.

Rather, we are in a world where the work, the people, the ideas, the inspirations, the tasks and the outcomes are not separated out and ‘costed’, not routinised nor meaningless but are rather segments of a totality to which we all belong and which contains endless layers of meaning.

When I watch teachers working with their students they aren’t anonymous clerks in a grey, routinised, bureaucratic Kafkaesque world but are more like a tribe delighting in the magic and enchantments of their world, where everything they do and say is infused with connections, meanings, delights and wonders. Even the language evoked to describe these places resonates with this sense of a magical world – a world where inspiration, interest, striving, flow, engagement locate forces as powerful and invisible as electricity, running through everyone and everything.

When I look at these engaged classrooms I’m not looking at a separate realm, distinct from what the rest of the school is doing, nor am I seeing isolated individuals grinding out pointless and meaningless tasks – the sort of picture Charles Dickens conjures up so well in his portrayal of Mr Gradgrind’s disenchanted classroom in ‘Great Expectations’. Rather, I’m seeing them as integral to everything else in the school, and everything else in the school as being reciprocally integral to them too.

Creating places of work that are part of an enchanted world is exhilarating and motivational. It’s a reminder that if we can forge the kind of work that doesn’t require great wads of additional money to get people to do it but comes with its own rewards then we can disavow the disenchanted world. We can make the world of work a place to live meaningfully, rather than being purely the means for a life elsewhere. We have a responsibility to think about how best to create an enchanted workforce, and by extension, an enchanted world. Trying to create an enchanted education is where I start.

In such a way, perhaps Weber’s alienating ‘iron cage’ can become more like a rubber one; flexible, responsive and more like a home in which we’re happy to live.

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