Why We Work (TED Books) | Barry Schwartz

Summary of: Why We Work (TED Books)
By: Barry Schwartz


In the book ‘Why We Work (TED Books)’ by Barry Schwartz, readers are introduced to different perspectives people have about work and how these mindsets impact their job satisfaction. Some view their jobs simply as a means to pay bills, while others see their careers as paths to growth and progress. However, those who find their work as a calling derive the most happiness, as they feel that their efforts contribute to positive change in the world. This book explores how businesses can enhance employees’ sense of purpose, drive motivation, and increase satisfaction by adjusting factors such as autonomy, investment, and mission.

Three Meaningful Perspectives of Work

The way individuals perceive their work can be boiled down to three outlooks: job perspective, career perspective, and calling perspective. Each viewpoint varies in the amount of fulfillment one derives from their work. Psychologist Amy Wrzesniewski discovered that witnessing positive change in the lives of others is a recurrent factor that turns employees’ work into a calling.

Three Factors for a Successful Company

Autonomy, investment, and mission are the essential factors that make a company successful, and they are all tied to how employees are treated. Granting employees more independence and responsibility increases trust, commitment, and respect within the workplace. Investment in employee skill development through challenging training programs makes employees feel valued, and a company’s mission should be present in the everyday affairs of the workplace. Vicious work cycles occur when companies reduce autonomy, investment, and mission during periods of poor performance, leaving employees demotivated and the company in a less competitive position.

In the search for the secret of a successful business, many strategies, formulas, and mantras have been devised. However, it all comes down to three essential factors, and they are all linked to how employees are treated. The first factor is autonomy, where granting employees more independence and decision-making power increases trust, commitment, and respect within the workplace. Giving employees more responsibility leads to them taking more pride in their work, from entry-level workers to leaders in project teams.

The second factor is investment. Successful companies have dedicated time, money, and effort to skill development through challenging training programs as employees feel their time and role are valuable. As a result, investment translates into motivated and engaged employees.

The third critical factor is mission. A company’s mission should be present in everyday affairs of the workplace, from management levels to team endeavors and finished products. Unfortunately, companies tend to reduce the levels of autonomy, investment, and mission during poor performance, which creates vicious work cycles.

For instance, a company experiencing pressure from a rival in the market may axe jobs or introduce strict monitoring of employee performance to boost performance. However, in reality, reduced job security and responsibility demotivate employees further, leaving the company in a less competitive position. Management then tightens their control, causing employee morale to further shrink, and the vicious cycle continues.

In conclusion, companies should strive to maintain autonomy, investment, and mission, especially during periods of poor performance. By prioritizing employee treatment and well-being, businesses can create a more productive and successful workplace.

The Pitfalls of Overstructuring and Financial Incentives

Overstructuring and financial incentives are two common practices in many professions and institutions today, but they often backfire. The US education system is a prime example of overstructuring, with detailed curricula limiting teachers’ ability to adapt to students’ needs. Financial incentives can also have unintended consequences, as seen in an Israeli daycare where a fine for late pick-ups actually increased tardiness. These approaches can decrease engagement and productivity, leaving employees feeling unmotivated and unsatisfied. It’s time to rethink our reliance on overstructuring and financial incentives and find new ways to motivate and empower employees.

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