Motivation in the Private Sector

Both sides of the coin that the Providence Journal editorial board describes in this passage from an unsigned essay concerning public labor in Central Falls are overly broad assertions, but the sentence that I’ve italicized seems especially presumptuous:

… as virtually anyone who has dealt with public employees at the state and local levels can attest, don’t expect many workers to take a relaxed view toward the “no-overtime” rule. As soon as a municipal office’s closing time arrives, they tend to be outta there fast. People in the private sector, driven by financial fear, tend to extend their time a bit to provide customer service to help keep their enterprise afloat.

No doubt, some private sector workers put in extra time out of worry that management will otherwise crack down on them, and others are surely afraid that a failure to go work beyond minimum hours will cut into the entire company’s competitive edge, but I’d wager that going above and beyond is motivated in the majority of private sector cases by ambition. Employees putting in extra effort, that is, are more likely to be hoping to advance than hoping not to backslide.
The inverse is the common complaint, among managers and ambitious workers, about unionized labor. Sure, they secure baseline rules for employees, but that baseline can also be a ceiling for those who wish to get ahead.

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Warrington Faust
Warrington Faust
11 years ago

One of the troubles with public employment is that advancement is keyed to “senority” (and influence)and that you essentially cannot be fired.
This was brought home to me some years ago when I did a lot of business with the Mass. Inheritance Tax Bureau. One day I encountered a new face at the reception desk. While waiting my turn it became obvious that the receptionist was a very troubled woman. She was some sort of mental defective and clearly anxiety ridden. She would scream at “customers” and sometimes other people who appeared to be imaginary.
When I got out back, I asked one of the agents whom I knew why they had put her out front. I should have guessed the answer “She was making us crazy, so what else could we do with her?”.

Phil
Phil
11 years ago

Employees putting in extra effort, that is, are more likely to be hoping to advance than hoping not to backslide.
Justin
Is this the case with you? You’ve written here that you took a 14 per cent cut in pay and have decided to continue to work. Do you expect to see the pre cut pay restored? Do you think that the company that cut your pay by 14 per cent is the company that you will prosper with down the road. Will your seniority and willingness to work even after a substantial pay cut translate into a secure future with the pay to match?

Justin Katz
11 years ago

The 14% cut was less a factor than the manner in which it was done (which was indicative of the broader environment). It was precisely when I began to question the availability of advancement that I began to reconsider my extra efforts.
As it happens, I’ve recently switched employers and am indeed putting in extra effort because I see opportunity in doing so.

mangeek
mangeek
11 years ago

“Do you expect to see the pre cut pay restored? Do you think that the company that cut your pay by 14 per cent is the company that you will prosper with down the road. Will your seniority and willingness to work even after a substantial pay cut translate into a secure future with the pay to match?”
I’ve been in situations where taking a cut or letting negotiated ones go unfulfilled has led to me being kept employed when virtually everyone around me was let go. The deciding factor for me is the reason for the cut. If the boss really can’t pay the bills, I’m willing to ride along. If they just want to increase the pile of cash they’re on, I start cutting services from the contract. Any boss or client who offers a cut needs to open the books with you and show you how things are going badly, or offer you a chance to have more input on cost-saving measures.
I must be doing something right, all I have is a high school diploma, never taken any handouts (from parents or the government), and it looks like next year’s raise won’t be making me any happier, if this report is correct.
The really hard thing is trying to negotiate an increase in a contract’s cost in a deflationary environment. My biggest client makes a good argument that getting the same this year as last -is- basically getting a raise.

Russ
Russ
11 years ago

I’d wager that going above and beyond is motivated in the majority of private sector cases by ambition.

Nonsense! People are much more influenced by intrinsic motivations than by “ambition.” I can think of many, many counterexamples of coworkers who love their jobs and yet have no ambition to pursue promotions.
Dan Pink has a great presentation on this (look it up). The gist of it is that the following affect us much more than the carrot and stick (no matter how bad the wingnuts out there clap their hands and believe it’s all about the money)…
Autonomy: People want to have control over their work.
Mastery: People want to get better at what they do.
Purpose: People want to be part of something that is bigger than they are.

Phil
Phil
11 years ago

Justin
Thanks for that answer. I would not suggest that any decision a worker must make is wrong. Recieving cuts or increased healthcare contributions does not serve to motivate workers to work harder but it does not mean that most won’t continue as before. Unfortunately many private sector workers have so little control in these jobs that they suffer these cuts without recourse. More unfortunate though is the direction of their frustration and anger.
Russ
Excellent. There are many who work in traditionally low paying jobs who work hard and with a sense of purpose.

mangeek
mangeek
11 years ago

“Autonomy: People want to have control over their work.
Mastery: People want to get better at what they do.
Purpose: People want to be part of something that is bigger than they are.”
Yeah, but I -really- don’t like to have a big chunk of my paycheck handed over to people who prefer to autonomously master the art of making useless unmarketable knick-knacks in order to feel a sense of purpose.
Also, there’s a frightening aspect to the ‘autonomy, mastery, purpose’ thing… Isn’t that why many women have children? If half the population is biologically inclined to reap the utmost satisfaction from procreation, and we’re committed as a society to keep these people afloat, aren’t we setting up a nasty vicious cycle of overpopulation, poverty, and dependence?
The reference you make addresses -performance-, but not willingness. Sure, paying someone stupid amounts to do stuff might not buy better results, but not paying someone who demonstrates superior results more than the bumpkin next to him won’t be too good for business in the long run, you’ll end up with a bunch of bumpkins working for you, while your competitor will be the next Google.
Finally: Not every job can offer autonomy, mastery, or purpose. Shoveling poop, managing prisoners, flipping burgers, treating bedsores, and painting walls probably aren’t giving many people much of any of those things. Some of those jobs don’t command enough pay to ‘take money out of the picture’, as the RSA presenter suggests. If painting a room costs more than $200, I’ll do it my damn self, and sacrifice a little bit of my own happiness for it; and we’ll have nothing to show for it but an unemployed painter, an unhappy (but righteous) paint-spattered white-collar guy, and a badly painted room.

Justin Katz
11 years ago

Russ,
A charitable reader (which I never expect you to be) would have understood that my statement was made the context of a particular argument of whether A is more likely than B. You offer C, D, and E, to which I say, fine, you’re contributing to my rebuttal of the Projo.
Be that as it may, our experience appears to have been somewhat different. Perhaps the three items you list are more prevalent in the public sector, where advancement by overwork isn’t really feasible. Sadly, though, crackdowns in the office have a way of eating into self-directed motivation.
More generally, though, I’d argue that your three items are essentially different categories than “money” whereby to cash in on ambition. Especially with autonomy, employees who put in extra effort are expecting, thereby, to be permitted to do the work that they prefer to do in the way that they prefer to do it.

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