I know from experience that a sense of purpose and meaning in one’s work is far more motivating than money or any other tangible benefit. Back when I was a volunteer for a Colorado mountain rescue team, I would put aside everything on my desk when the pager sounded and race into the wilderness with my teammates, because helping to save a life was far more satisfying than the things I was getting paid to do. And it’s not just about loving what you do, it’s about being more effective at it too. Adam Grant says in a recent blog post that studies have shown “when university fundraisers met a single student whose scholarship was funded by their work, they increased 142% in weekly phone minutes and over 400% in weekly revenue. When radiologists saw a patient’s photo included in an x-ray file, they wrote 29% longer reports and made 46% more accurate diagnoses.”
So why is it, when I ask a room full of federal agency employees what they are most motivated by, more than half of them answer “money” or “job security”?
My theory is that they’ve simply had that sense of purpose beaten right out of them by the current political climate. After sequestration and furlough schedules and even a government shut-down, after years of the public arguing about wasteful government spending and connecting it to the need to create jobs, as if government jobs don’t count for anything—it’s pretty hard to maintain a sense that what you’re doing is important, even if your job has to do with, say, defending our nation or protecting consumers from contaminated food or enforcing laws that protect our environment. The challenge for supervisors is to try and reconnect employees with the reasons their jobs exist; and the challenge for consultants is to help supervisors build tools to do this, when the supervisors themselves are just as weary and beaten down as the employees they supervise.