The Six Reasons We Work

Everybody should take a minute from time to time and ask themselves why they do what they do for work. The answers might seem obvious at first; perhaps something along the lines of “to support my family” or “to make money to travel” or other similar ideas. However, if we dig a little deeper and think about our actual motivations, our reasons for working can usually be divided into six main incentives. As employers, it’s a good idea for you to think about why your employees work for you. After all, their reasons to work will determine how well they work. Read about the six main motivations to work below and consider how each one affects you and your employees’ work ethic.

Positive Motives

The first three motives are going to produce the highest levels of performance in you and your employees as they relate directly to the work itself. 

1. Play 

The ‘play’ motivator suggests that your work incentivizes you because you simply enjoy doing it. The tricky thing about this category is that it doesn’t mean your employees have fun playing ping pong when on break or at your numerous company parties. They actually have to enjoy doing the work itself. For example, a football coach who is motivated by ‘play’ probably loves coming up with new training methods and different plays to try out in practice. This is the strongest motivator, and will typically yield the highest results.

2. Purpose 

The second highest motivation is when your work gives you a sense of purpose. This means that, while the work itself might not be particularly enjoyable, it offers a sense of accomplishment that leaves you feeling fulfilled and encourages you to work hard. Some common examples of jobs that offer a sense of purpose are nurses, teachers, and law enforcement. That doesn’t mean the people who have these careers don’t find enjoyment in the actual daily tasks, but rather they’re driven to do well because of what results from a job well done in these particular industries.

3. Potential 

The final positive motive is work that incentivizes you because it enhances your potential to accomplish personal goals. With ‘potential’ motivation, you’re working hard toward goals that aren’t a direct result of your daily tasks, but will be viable in the future because of what you’re doing and thus still relates to your performance. You might be aiming for a promotion to a different department, or trying to learn skills that will be applicable for your dream job down the road. You might not enjoy the work itself, and it may not fulfil any sense of purpose within you, but your desire to realize your goals is incentive enough to make you work hard.

Negative Motives

The final three are considered negative motives because the reason behind the motivation doesn’t relate to the actual work being done.  

4. Emotional Pressure 

With ‘emotional pressure’, the employee isn’t working because of what the work entails, but instead to avoid feelings of shame, disappointment, or guilt. These feelings can be put upon your employees by themselves or from others around them. Either way, if you’re working in the family restaurant because you’re too afraid to tell your parents you want to be a Veterinarian, or if you have a high-paying job because you feel like it’s expected of you to make a lot of money, your performance and work ethic will likely suffer. 

5. Economic Pressure 

One of the most common reasons people find they’re working is because of ‘economic pressure’. When this is the case, an employee works to either gain a reward or avoid punishment. Absolutely nothing about the job itself encourages them to work. Money is a big motivation for many, but studies show employees from all salary levels are found to fall prey to ‘economic pressure’. The reason this kind of motivation is so rough on productivity levels is because, in the mindset of an employee under economic pressure, the job simply needs to be done in order to receive their reward or avoid their punishment. 

6. Inertia 

Inertia is the worst kind of motivator and yet is still incredibly common in the workplace. When somebody who is motivated by ‘inertia’ is asked why they work, they really don’t have an answer. They simply come into work because that’s what they did yesterday, and the day before that, and the day before that, for as long as they can remember. Most of the time their mind will be on autopilot and they’re simply going through the motions, working no more or less than the day before and applying zero passion to what they do. 

Identifying what incentivizes your employees is a great way to understand them on a deeper level. You can’t expect an employee who is in a state of inertia to all of a sudden become motivated by the fun in what they do. However, the more you understand these six reasons that drive us to go to work every day, the more agency you and your team can take to combat them. Who knows, maybe you can give them a purpose (or at least potential) for coming to work.