Jobs and the Future of Work

What makes people happy at work?

Chester Elton
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After two decades of studying some amazing work cultures, and more than 850,000 people surveyed for our books, we have come to understand a few things about what makes people happiest at work.

And most of what we’ve thought was right is wrong.

If you are reading this, you’ve probably read other articles on happiness on the job. Most of them usually include a list of things that make us happy: transparency of communication, trust, empowerment, recognition, clarity, money, mastery, ownership, interesting work, purpose—and there’s usually a fun idea thrown in like free sodas, happy hours, or taking your parrot to work day.

It’s not that any of those things are inherently bad, not at all, but here’s what the research shows: Some people actually aren’t motivated by purpose at work. Some aren’t necessarily happier in a transparent communication culture. Some don’t need high levels of empowerment. Some aren’t motivated by money—and yet some people are.

To get our heads around his, we’ll turn to Steven Reiss, a Yale-educated PhD who completed his clinical psychological internship at Harvard Medical School and taught for years at Ohio State University. He conducted extensive studies of what motivates people and argues that we are individuals to a much greater extent than many experts will admit. “Individuals differ enormously in what makes them happy—for some, competition, winning, and wealth are the greatest sources of happiness, but for others feeling competent and socializing may be more satisfying.”

His point: happiness isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution.

What our research adds is this: We found 23 workplace motivators that can create happiness for each of us in varying degrees—ideas that range from challenge and excelling, to service and teamwork, to fun and empathy, to money and prestige, to creativity and learning. And the chances of you and I having even the same top 5 of the 23 motivators in common, in the same order, is more than 100,000-to-1.

Unfortunately the fixes out there on happiness at work are much too simplistic and categorical to help real, living, complex human beings. After all, you aren’t like your siblings, your kids don’t have the same passions in life, the people you graduated from college don’t share your same drivers. Everyone has a thumbprint-like makeup of what makes him or her most happy 9-to-5; and those prints vary considerably.

I know this doesn’t make for a tidy 5-step article. But we need to deal with this truth if we are going to become happier personally, not to mention more productive as organizations and as a society.

The good news is this: Those we’ve studied who have found deeper meaning in their careers find their days much more energizing and satisfying, and count their employment as one of their greatest sources of joy and pride. Researcher Jessica Pryce-Jones conducted a study of 3,000 workers in seventy-nine countries, finding that those who took greater satisfaction from their work were 150 percent more likely to have a happier life overall.

So, how to find one’s motivators or passions in life? I’m about to boil down a mountain of research into a few simple steps, and that’s never very accurate, but here goes. What follows are 3 signs that something is a motivator in your work:

  1. You look forward to doing it
  2. You feel energized while doing it
  3. When you talk about it later, you light up

Let’s say the idea that gets you passionate at work is using your “creativity.” For instance, you know you eagerly anticipate brainstorming sessions or developing new products or processes at work, you feel a skip in your step when you are asked to use your innovative skills, and later you’ll talk about those creative experiences in animated ways with friends and family. That’s most likely a motivator.

Now, what to do with this information?

We found the vast majority of the happiest people have been able to somewhat sculpt their current roles so they can do a little more of what they love to do and a little less of what they find demotivating. Obviously we all have things about our jobs we find distasteful, and that’s not going to completely change. Someone has to take out the trash, after all? What I’m talking about is a type of subtle modification we call “job sculpting.” For employees, the benefit of this process is obvious. But for leaders, the payback can be powerful as well, as sculpting can help diagnose how each team member’s specific tasks are (or are not) aligned with his or her motivations, and uncover small changes that can lead to increases in team morale, engagement, and results.

As you think about potential sculpting moves, ask yourself three questions:

  • What Can I Transfer? Are there things that you might be able to do less of or even transfer entirely that aren’t motivating? Are there members of your team who might be interested in swapping responsibilities to open up opportunities to try new tasks?
  • What Can I Alter? Do you have responsibilities that might be altered somewhat to become more fulfilling to one of your motivators?
  • What Can I Add? Are there one or two specific tasks you could add that would help fulfill your motivators? Are there unclaimed or emerging opportunities you could take on?

To move forward, we have to discard the vague notions of motivation and get to a more granular, individualized level in assessing what motivates each of us. You’ll find that success in life is not about doing what anyone else thinks is right for you, it’s about aligning more of your work with what motivates you.

This article is published in collaboration with LinkedIn. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

To keep up with the Agenda subscribe to our weekly newsletter.

Author: Chester Elton is the author of “What Motivates Me” & “All In” 

Image: Traders laugh as they work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange as the market closes REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

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