Research carried out by Andrew Bryce of the University of Sheffield involving 150,000 British and American workers revealed that non-monetary or salary related factors were important in determining worker wellbeing.
Vittorio Pelligra, Professor of Economic Policy at the University of Cagliari and expert in behavioural and experimental economics, explains: “Workers are increasingly requesting an investment in purpose.” What impact does this have on management, organisation models and reducing inefficiencies? We asked Professor Pelligra who, for several years, has been studying the economic and social implications of this concept of organisational wellbeing.
The purpose of work has again become a hot topic over the past few months. How do you explain this?
The anthropological shock triggered by the tragedy of this pandemic has driven us all to question the nature of work. Because for many people work simply stopped while for others it was rapidly and suddenly transformed.
The fact remains that the current situation is an opportunity to reflect on the usefulness of some jobs and the pointlessness of others…
Data from international studies show that not all jobs are seen to have a purpose. Some jobs have been seen as pointless by the very workers themselves. This opens up an enormous scope for reflection because on an international scale we are talking about around 17-20% of workers. If our system offers jobs that generate wealth but destroy purpose, then the problem goes way beyond the economic crisis and this calls for a radical solution.
Work needs to be redesigned from the roots so that it always has purpose
Where do we start?
Let’s start with an apparently obvious statement: in recent times, we have all reflected on the overall purpose of our lives and of work. To varying degrees of empiricism we have understood what is right and what is wrong, but I believe that work needs to be redesigned from the roots, adjustments here and there are not enough. Work needs redesigning so that it increasingly becomes a source of purpose for individuals and for organisations. And as a consequence, for society as a whole. Every job, even the most strenuous ones, has the capacity to deliver wellbeing and this wellbeing is greater when we manage to derive greater purpose from the job itself. The effects of this “source of purpose” have an impact on productivity, which many organisations have realised in these times of remote working.
What are the elements of a job with purpose?
Autonomy, trust, continuous growth and a social focus.
Let’s start by talking about trust…
We need to restore a relationship of trust between employees and organisations. This would require the exact opposite of a management model based essentially on control. The pandemic has revealed the limitations of this model, but it has also revealed the strength and resilience of those organisations founded on trust. Control has hidden costs because it is demotivating and it destroys relationships of trust. To trigger this transformation process, we have to create organisations willing to expose themselves to the risk of trust: one worker in a hundred may betray that trust, but the other 99 will be transformed by the relationship and will not feel ‘useless’.
So, trust is related to the degree of autonomy that a job allows…
Yes, because the self-employed generally experience a greater degree of satisfaction than employees or than employees in organisations where control is strict and inflexible.
Workers will be transformed both by this relationship of trust and also by feeling they are part of an organisation that values their growth. A professional and cultural growth that the organisation has invested in.
We need to restore a relationship of trust between employees and organisations. This would require the exact opposite of a management model based essentially on control. The pandemic has revealed the limitations of this model, but it has also revealed the strength and resilience of those organisations founded on trust.
You mentioned “continuous growth”. What do you mean exactly?
I mean that workers will be transformed both by this relationship of trust and also by feeling they are part of an organisation that values their growth. A professional and cultural growth that the organisation has invested in.
Could this sense of purpose be interpreted as a “luxury” and only valid for specific jobs?
It’s a mistake to think that there is purpose only in those jobs with a high degree of creativity and as a result also autonomy. In actual fact, even jobs that are not creative have a lot of room for improvement. A study by Adam Grant, who teaches at the Wharton School, focuses on workers in a call centre who contacted people to collect donations for student scholarships. In a field that seems a world away from having a purpose, Grant managed to prove that by doing something meaningful, the workers were more motivated. The experiment showed how important it is to communicate to employees what impact their work has. In Grant’s experiment, the result would have an impact on the futures of a number of young people, and to varying degrees this is true in many other cases. Knowing that what you are doing has a purpose totally changes your outlook.
Does work contribute to worker wellbeing independently of its impact?
In his 1890 publication Principles of Economics, Alfred Marshall wrote that “the desire for excellence for its own sake graduates down from that of a Newton, or a Stradivarius, to that of the fisherman
who, even when no one is looking and he is not in a hurry, delights in handling his craft well.” Desires of this kind, Marshall continues, “exert a great influence on the supply of the highest faculties and the greatest inventions; and they are not unimportant on the side of demand. For a large part of the demand for the most highly skilled professional services and the best work of the mechanical artisan, arises from the delight that people have in the training of their own faculties, and in exercising them.” Organisations often neglect the levers that affect this ‘delight’ and ‘training’, focusing instead on monetary incentives. The challenge is to introduce innovation to those workplaces where there is a greater sense of resignation and a feeling of ‘uselessness’.
These motivational levers are more profound and should lift the veil of a general lack of purpose. Remove the veil and that relationship of trust we mentioned earlier is strengthened.
The risk is that frustration could lead to trouble for the organisation…
If these levers are not triggered, then this leads to inefficiency and a huge waste of vital energy. If this still occurs, it is because the models of organisation theory and management that we generally apply are based on greatly over-simplified psychology: this prevents managers and job designers from seeing the intrinsic motivation of workers and from valuing their commitment to the goals of the organisation.
In the wake of the lockdown, there is an even greater need for job designers and managers to rethink each and every job in terms of motivation…
This is the key point, but we need to develop our ability to create workplaces that give purpose regardless of whether they are ‘smart’ or ‘creative’. The challenge is to introduce innovation to those workplaces where there is a greater sense of resignation and a feeling of ‘uselessness’. That’s why I believe that we need a work culture that takes this basic human need into account: to see the purpose in what we do and recognise the impact of our jobs.