Management Depends on why People are Motivated to Work
One belief – popular amongst economists – is that people largely work for wages. If this is correct, then managers are necessary to ensure that people provide the work to which they have agreed.
An alternate premise is that – under the right conditions – work is itself a ‘good’, which adds meaning, depth or significance to our lives. This theme has many variants, including recent ‘craft’ theories in which workers desire to work well or to be recognized for doing so. Viewing work as a ‘good’ or ‘craft’ raises questions about what managers do. If people have their own reasons for working well, managers aren’t necessary to good work in the same way.
The cleaning workers we studied are especially appropriate for such exploration, precisely because we would not expect to find many opportunities for craftsmanship here. Cleaners perform what is often called ‘dirty work – work that is hard, unpleasant and often viewed as ‘low status’ work (Ashforth and Kreiner 1999). If we find craftsmanship here, then this offers insights into the importance of craft motivations for workers and managers in more privileged occupations.
Managing Work Avoidance
‘[Assume that] the worker likes income but hates work’
– Edward Lazear
The notion that we rationally avoid work has a long history. Some Judeo-Christian narratives describe work as toil: the painful legacy of expulsion from paradise. In Greek mythology, we find Sisyphus condemned to an eternity rolling a stone up a hill, only to have the stone return to earth each time. French philosopher Albert Camus could ‘imagine Sisyphus happy’. Yet for many of us, Sisyphus’ fate evokes the mundane futility of working life, from which we would prefer to escape.
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Other philosophers more systematically cleave work out of the good life. According to Aristotle, and later Hannah Arendt, we realize our highest human potential in thinking, art, or politics. Moreover, we realize this potential precisely by escaping the drudgery of labor. Something similar to this idea briefly surfaced in the 1970s and early 1980s, awakening hope in many that mechanization might free us from work. Yet the subsequent spike in working hours has seemingly condemned this ambition to history’s dustbin.
Each narrative suggests – at least implicitly – a clear role for management in relation to the importance of motivation. If work is toil, drudgery, or suffering, then management must more or less forcefully direct people to perform tasks they wish to avoid.
Economists state this idea most explicitly. For example, Edward Lazear – Professor of Economics at Stanford University – claims that people have an innate tendency to ‘shirk’ (avoid) their work tasks. Consequently, management’s primary role is to ensure – by carrot or stick – that people deliver their tasks. Although economics is nominally a social science, Lazear’s story has clear moral overtones. Like original sin, people’s instinctive desire to shirk leads them to break their promise to work. Managers ensure that the promise is kept.
‘Craftsmanship names an enduring, basic human impulse, the desire to do a job well for its own sake.’ ― Richard Sennett
Recent social theory revives a very different ideal of work as a craft. The word craft raises images of an artisan in a dusty workhouse. Or less benignly, craft may evoke secretive guilds and clubs who advance their own interests behind closed doors.
Yet modern social theory retrieves two wider, more current ideas about craftsmanship. The first is that craftwork can mean ‘working well’ for its own sake. Consider the old saying that character is who you are when no one is watching. In a sense, craftsmanship is character at work: the commitment to doing a good job even when no one sees you and it gains you nothing.
The second idea links working well to self-identity and self-development, through the recognition that work offers or provides. Even secretive ancient craft guilds projected a public image of respectability tied to their specific set of skills. In establishing work-based communities, guild members created social spaces in which both colleagues and the public at least implicitly acknowledged their occupational knowledge.
Community versus Colleague Recognition
In modern society, work offers at least two types of recognition, even without these formal trappings. One type, which we term community recognition, is public recognition for the value of one’s work role or profession, such as the widespread acknowledgment that doctors, teachers, and engineers serve important social functions. Another, which we term colleague recognition, is recognition for a person’s particular skills. Here, we recognize someone not just for being a doctor, teacher, or engineer, but for being a good doctor, teacher, or engineer.
Craft theorists claim that both types of recognition matter more than is often thought. Not only is recognition pleasant, it also helps establish self-identities robust enough to cope with life’s inevitable ups and downs.
How Craft Work affects Management
Craft theories muddy the manager’s role. If management is partly meant to watch for workers misbehaving, then exactly what is their role in managing workers who work well of their own accord? If craftsmanship is widespread, then management’s role is unclear.
More critical craft theorists like Christophe Dejours have argued that management practices that assume that workers are work-adverse can actually be damaging. Excessive hierarchical control can stifle natural craft instincts, while individualistic performance measurement can disrupt workplace communities that – like modern-day guilds – support mutual recognition.
The Importance of Motivation to Work
‘See you’re only supposed to clean windows once per year, you get a date to do it. I do mine every term. I like to keep them clean’ – Gwyneth, cleaner
We cannot formally test either the toil or craft narratives of work. People have different motives for working, and we could no doubt find both of these motives compelling the same individuals at different times – perhaps even throughout the same day.
However, we can explore the importance of types of motivation and how far we should let narratives guide our thinking about how and why people work and what managers do.
Case Study: Putting craft to the test
Our research studied a group of school cleaners’ motivation to work, and how these cleaners reacted to management controls.
These cleaners’ experiences are particularly important, because their work seems to provide strong incentives to shirk. Cleaners’ work is often hard, dirty, and either disregarded or demeaned by others in their own workplace. This particular group of cleaners also faced little effective control over cleaning quality. Their work was largely unobserved. Since they were also highly unionized, they were essentially protected from being dismissed or ‘fired’ for not performing their jobs well.
In other words, the cleaners we studied had – according to common narratives, a good reason not to work, and few obvious consequences for ‘shirking’. If any workers are likely to match the toil narrative and require close management oversight, these workers are.
But is this what actually happened?
In a word, no. The cleaners in our study demonstrated a strong commitment to their work, despite colleagues who often ignored or belittled their contributions.
Not only that, many cleaners broke management rules that prevented them from working well. In practice, managers primarily controlled costs. Management reduced cleaning times for each task (e.g. to six minutes per room) and cut the quality of cleaning chemicals.
In response, cleaners maintained cleaning standards at their own expense. Cleaners performed extra work unpaid. This included cleaning the toilets alone and unpaid on weekends. Many cleaners also bought their own cleaning chemicals to enable them to do their job properly.
In practice, the managers in this case systematically relied on having cleaners who were strongly committed to keeping cleaning standards high, even when faced with cost-cutting initiatives. In our summation, these management controls ‘presume rather than police cleaners’ commitment to high-quality work.’
The Importance of Motivation for Management
‘If they would provide us with good-quality equipment and chemicals, our job would be so much easier and we would be providing a better service and a better finish to what we are doing … They try to stop us from cleaning.’ – John, cleaner
Conceptualizing work as craft, and seeing craftsmanship in action in cleaning, has several implications with respect to how we think about both work and management.
First, the fact that the cleaners continued to work well, despite cost controls, and despite being belittled or ignored, shows how deeply people can hold craft instincts.
Second, thinking about work as a craft gives us cause to question when management needs to be involved. One remainder of disutility narratives, and of some management ideologies, is that management initiative makes things happen. We often imagine the heroic entrepreneurial-manager, for example, as the woman or man of action. And when corporations are successful, it is increasingly the Chief Executive Officer who receives the credit and takes center stage.
Yet craft narratives suggest that good management may often mean getting out of the way. If management should support good work, then managers may also need to resist organizational policies or demands that degrade craft skills and aspirations. This might include resisting short-term imperatives to profit at the expense of good quality production or customer service. From this perspective, good management means managing for craft: creating and protecting organizational spaces in which less influential workers can implement shared craft ideals.
Third, craft narratives direct closer attention to how work communities can sustain quality. Recognition from management matters, but so too does recognition from colleagues. Managing for craft, therefore, is also helping to sustain bonds between workers that enable this type of recognition to flourish. Excessive top-down control, or overly individual performance measurement, may weaken horizontal bonds that ultimately preserve shared quality standards.
Fourth and finally, our study invites managers to reflect on what it would mean to think of management itself as a craft. To recall, craftsmanship names a desire to work well for its own sake. If we step back from questions of efficiency, control, and profit, what aspirations and tasks would comprise a managerial craft? Our study does not claim to answer this question. However, reflecting on the common aspirations we share at work – and which cleaning workers have powerfully demonstrated – provides a promising place from which to start.
Ashforth, Blake E. and Glen E. Kreiner (1999). “How Can You Do it?”: Dirty Work and the Challenge of Constructing a Positive Identity. Academy of Management Review, Vol. 24, No. 3 – 413-434.
Lazier, Edward (1995). Personal Economics. The MIT Press.
Sennett, Richard (2008): The Craftsman. Allen Lane, Penguin Press.
Tweedie, Dale and Sasha Holley (2016): The subversive craft worker: Challenging ‘disutility’ theories of management control. Human Relations, vol. 69, no. 9 – 1877-1900.