Why We Work

More than a century ago, Frederick Winslow Taylor, one of the leaders of the Progressive Era’s “Efficiency Movement,” said this to a congressional sub-committee:

“I can say, without the slightest hesitation, the science of handling pig-iron is so great that the man who is… physically able to handle pig-iron and is sufficiently phlegmatic and stupid to choose this for his occupation is rarely able to comprehend the science of handling pig-iron.”

Taylor was a mechanical engineer who won fame for applying his craft to industrial efficiency, which depended largely on these “phlegmatic and stupid” workers complying with “enforced standardization,” “enforced adoption,” and “enforced cooperation.”  Who does the enforcing? Management, of course.

Latent ProfitTaylor died in 1915. Fast forward to this past Sunday when the New York Times ran an article called “Rethinking Work.” The article starts out by quoting a Gallup poll that reports 9 out 10 workers were either “not engaged” or “actively disengaged” in their work. Why is this? The article’s author, Barry Schwartz, posits that it may be due to the influence of Adam Smith, the early economist who lived 150 years before Taylor. Smith felt that people were driven only by self-interest, were basically lazy, and worked only because they had to and because they were being paid.

Schwartz writes that the influences of Smith and Taylor still live with us, in our ongoing quest for efficiency in the call center and productivity in the cubicle. Schwartz writes:

“I think that this cynical and pessimistic approach to work is entirely backward. It is making us dissatisfied with our jobs– and it is also making us worse at them.”


Schwartz describes what most of us know from empirical observation: Employees are driven as much by purpose as by pay. Schwartz offers some colorful examples, such as college students calling alumni for donations designated for scholarships. The fundraising success of these students increased 171% after hearing a talk from a young alum who had attended the university on a scholarship, who described how his life had been positively changed by this experience.

I love that story and others like it, but they don’t surprise me. I see things like this all the time. In my work, we focus on creating a strong “internal brand,” because the beliefs of employees have everything to do with creating the eventual beliefs of customers. I define a strong internal brand as “a shared belief of why we matter.” 

Notice that I didn’t say “a shared belief that this is a great place to work.” That’s a given. It’s the ante, the price of admission. If your employees don’t think you create a good work environment, it’s so obvious that your business performance will suffer I don’t even want to devote any more space to it. What really matters is that, on top of beliefs your company is a great place to work, employees believe that what you do matters. It matters to customers. It matters to the marketplace. Imagine if your employees were to believe that the world is a better place because of your company.

Employees are driven by a sense of purpose. “Purpose” is often thought to describe only an altruistic social goal, as in protecting the environment or dedicating a portion of profits to combat poverty. Those are noble purposes, yet employees can be inspired by a sense of purpose with direct economic benefit to the company they work for.

In a program Yastrow and Company developed with Kimpton Hotels back in 2006, we focused on helping employees understand their personal roles in fulfilling one of Kimpton’s most important and differentiating values: creating relationships with customers. The program, called “The Kimpton Moment,” helped all of Kimpton’s 6000 employees participate, each and every day, in creating meaningful relationships between Kimpton and its guests. I spent a lot of time with Kimpton employees during that period, and I saw first hand how this direct involvement in something that not only helped the company but had meaning was incredibly inspirational for employees.

The movie Jobs, starring Ashton Kutcher as Steve Jobs, starts with a scene in 2001 where Steve Jobs introduces the iPod to Apple employees. The employees are rapt with attention, on the edge of their seats, as Jobs hints at the product he is about to unveil. He says, “What it represents is more important than what it is. It is a tool for the heart. And when you can touch someone’s heart– that’s limitless.”  He then says, “It’s a thousand songs in your pocket,” and pulls the iPod out of his own pocket, to rapturous applause from the employees.

Why? Because they knew they were part of something that mattered to customers, to the marketplace and to the world.

So, if you want to supercharge your results, enlist the help of your employees in creating that success. Find your purpose, and share it with employees. Then, naturally, your employees will share your purpose through their work.

If you’d like to discuss this idea further, shoot me a note at steve@yastrow.comand we’ll talk. This is one of my favorite topics.

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Posted in Internal Marketing, Invent Your Future, Latent Profit, Newsletters

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