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A few years ago, my partner and I had the lofty idea of starting our own healthy food business. Like most small startups, we were passion-rich but resource-poor, so I used our growing network of cool customers as a well of intelligence from which I could draw information and advice. In this process, I struck up a regular chat with a customer who was also a fellow small business owner. Once a week I would deliver a wooden crate of good foodstuff, and we would shoot the breeze, swapping startup stories and sharing our experiences. One day he looked like he had had enough and when I asked if all was well he replied, ‘You know, I would have the perfect business if I didn’t have any staff or customers.’

People can be difficult. And complicated.

We each come with a unique mix of personality, background, intelligence, skills, opinions, and quirks. Within such diversity lies the secret to much of our success (and failure) as a species, but with so much complexity it sometimes seems a miracle that we actively choose to live and work together. But work together we do. A lot. Despite the rise of freelancing and telecommuting, the vast majority of work in the global economy is still done by groups of people aiming for the achievement of a common goal. Why? Because it works. Despite the endless challenges of unifying individuals into a cohesive whole, organizations are capable of achieving significantly more than any single person. Whether your mission is profit or social change (or both), building or growing an organization is a natural step to take. In the famous words of anthropologist, Margaret Mead:

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

But, inversely, when organizations don’t work well the negative impact is far more pronounced. One doesn’t need to go back far in memory to find evidence of corporate breakdown that has damaged lives, societies, and economies. So, the stakes are high, and every organization – particularly in leadership – needs to be conscious of not only what it does, but why it does it. What are the hidden mechanisms that are guiding employee behavior, and how can they be utilized to increase motivation, employee wellbeing, and organizational health?

In his outstanding book Reinventing Organizations, Frederic Laloux considers this and similar questions as he charts the evolution of organizations. He starts as far back as early human civilizations, which didn’t have organizations in the definitive sense, and tracks through to modern society and the integrative organizations that are emerging at the leading edge of development. Intrinsic to this developmental map is the understanding that different types of organizations operate in different ways, which directly impacts how people within the organization are best motivated to perform.

At the time of the rise of the first great international organization, the Catholic Church, employee motivation was not even a topic. This was the Age of the Stick. You filled your role and did what was expected of you, and that was the end of the transaction. A more contemporary example of this type of organization is the military, where strict hierarchy and obedience are what keep the wheels turning.

Most of us, though, are far more familiar with the modern organizational model that retains structure and roles, but grants individuals more autonomy and accountability, and gives them room to move up the ranks according to the quality of their work. This meritocracy defines the Age of the Stick-and-Carrot, where employee motivation is largely driven by incentives, mostly financial. Though it has a dark side (think: C-level executives taking massive, ethically-questionable bonuses while employees are laid off) this system has dominated major commerce for some time. It is at the heart of nearly all major multinational corporations and has been enormously successful, provided the measure of success is achievement, performance, and often, profit. But, in light of recent research into human employee motivation, is this incentive-driven approach on its way out?

Drawing on four decades of career analysis, Dan Pink posits that the best way to stay motivated and seek satisfaction in work and life is not to chase the big reward, but to live in a self-directed way that embraces continuous learning and supports your ability to find meaning in your existence. Pink suggests that research has proved over and over again that, apart from activities requiring mechanical skill, people are more motivated to work well when they are offered the opportunity to achieve autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

What does this mean for you? If you are an employer, it might give some clear clues to how you should consider restructuring your organization’s motivational strategies. But, as an individual, a coach or a client, this perspective opens up a new way of interpreting why someone may feel lost, unsatisfied or misdirected in their work or life. What we know as the ‘mid-life crisis’ is often a case of a person who has played by the rules their entire career and achieved success, only to find that they don’t feel whole, complete or satisfied. The word ‘crisis’ is appropriate, because this realization can be profoundly disruptive, but it doesn’t need to happen mid-life. These inflection points in our lives, when we are invited to question why we work the way we do or live the way we do, can be difficult, but deeply transformative. We might need support to get through these times, but most importantly we need to stay true to ourselves, and our deeper needs.


Photo by Elaine Casap on Unsplash