Monday, February 21, 2005

The Motivation of the Work

I’m regularly accused of idealism for suggesting that people are motivated to do their jobs not only by the prospect of rewards or the sanction of punishments but because of the intrinsic pleasure of performing well. Sometimes my critics will allow that this automotivation takes place in certain highfalutin occupations in the arts or sciences but not for the girl who pours your coffee at the coffee shop or the pure schmuck who sweeps up the office—evidently these folks inhabit a world in which wage slavery is slavery indeed and life is perpetual degradation. They may be right. I do date back to an epoch in which people didn’t conceive of working as a straight-up trade of self-respect for money. If things have changed, however, I doubt if they’ve changed all that much. I certainly wouldn’t willingly hire a janitor who didn’t want to sweep clean, even when I wasn’t watching; and I wouldn’t want to be the janitor either. That said, I’m well aware that under the current dispensation lots of people feel like whores in a system of universal prostitution. I simply regard this state of affairs as pathological.

Speaking descriptively and not homiletically, I don’t think the human world would work even as well as it does if the only motivating forces were extrinsic rewards and punishments. The pay system that structures and energizes the activities of the workers in a firm couldn’t function if the various participants didn’t organize their efforts around more global goals than the next paycheck. Reward systems simply don’t supply enough information to organize or coordinate the complex activities of even small companies or motivate the particular intelligent actions that make up modern work. It says something about the screwiness of the times that this point has to be made.

The human willingness to work is hardly unproblematic. The owners of enterprises routinely exploit the motivation of the work to get more effort from their employees than they are willing to pay for and not just in a handful of glamorous businesses. Discount retailing in this country is parasitic on the absurdly good work habits of abused employees, for example, which is why the Wal-Mart happy face is properly drawn with fangs. It would be a sad world indeed, however, if the rewards and challenges of the job itself were not a third thing between the demands of the masters and the acquiescence of the slaves.