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Smith Business Insight Podcast | Series 3 . Episode 4 Brave New Workplace


Smith Business Insight Podcast

Engaging work and the chance to help others — not money or self-interest — are the ultimate job motivators. Someone forgot to tell the boss


From nurses to museum guards, we are all chasing work that is absorbing and purposeful. But it can be an elusive goal given the way many jobs are structured. Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be such a struggle. In this podcast episode, guest Julian Barling, author of Brave New Workplace, discusses the small measures organizations and individuals can adopt to cultivate meaning, the warning signs for people who are too attached to their jobs and the lessons we can learn from those who excel at jobs most of us would rather not do. Dr. Barling is joined in conversation by host Alan Morantz. 


[Music playing] 

Alan Morantz: Do you think a big paycheque or a hefty year-end bonus are the ultimate job motivators? They are pretty sweet for sure, but there’s a motivating force even more powerful than compensation — it is meaning. 

And where does meaning come from in the workplace? Well, it comes from deep personal involvement with the work, and from knowing that your labour has an impact on others. As one acerbic commentator once said, companies that ignore the importance of meaning are essentially bribing their employees and paying the price in a lack of commitment. 

Welcome to episode four of Brave New Workplace. I’m your host, Alan Morantz, senior editor of Smith Business Insight, and today Julian Barling and I are talking about the meaning we derive from the work we do. Dr. Barling is author of the newly published Brave New Workplace, and he is a Distinguished University Professor and Borden Chair of Leadership at Smith School of Business. He has some 40 years of management research to draw from. 

Here is our conversation on what organizations can do to cultivate meaningful work and what we can learn from people doing jobs that make the rest of us queasy. 

[Music playing] 

1:25: AM: I’ve done a bit of my own research, Julian, and it would probably come as a surprise to readers of your book that the word “compensation” comes up only 70 times in an 80,000-word book, and that’s mostly in relation to worker’s compensation and safety cases. The word “bonus” only comes up three times. Did you not read the memo that money is the ultimate motivator? 

Julian Barling: I thought that would be controversial and, to some extent, it’s almost meant to be controversial. But it is really borne out of the data. 

When I get together with exec ed groups, and we get together with lots of people, what I try and do is ask three questions in order to try and appreciate the role of compensation. And the first question is, how many of you would like more money? And surprisingly, while most people put their hands up, not everybody does. 

The second question is, would you work harder if they paid you more? And what you see is the number of hands that go up certainly goes down. But if you think what organizations need, I don’t think they need people working harder and harder right now. I think to some extent the problem is we have too many people working too hard. 

And then I ask the question that I think is the question that is, how many of you would use better judgments if they paid you more? Or how many of you would work more safely if they paid you more? And people start to look around the room as if there’s something wrong with the question. I think that starts to point us in a different direction. 

So what did the data tell us? I think when we start to look for an evidence-based answer to the role of compensation in work in general, and if we just wanted to look at safety in particular, pay-for-performance schemes tend to create an economic mindset. And what comes with an economic mindset is a sense of competition, a competition sometimes within groups, between groups, between organizations, even though we know that we can possibly achieve more from a cooperative mindset, a pro-social mindset. If we look very specifically at safety, which was the topic for another discussion, there’s actually research showing that pay-for-performance schemes are associated with more safety incidents and injuries. 

So should we be focusing more on compensation and pay and bonuses when we are trying to create more productive, healthy and safe workplaces? Or, over the years and decades, have we learned that there are perhaps other places where we can find more productive answers? I think that it’s not a new answer. I think we can go back to two responses from people who I think are just wonderful people to read. Jeffrey Pfeffer, who is at Stanford University, had a terrific article in 1998 in the Harvard Business Review, and the article was intriguingly entitled Six Dangerous Myths About Pay. It concludes that one of the biggest myths about pay is that people are primarily motivated by money. Now he says people do work for money, but they work even more for meaning in their lives. And he goes on to say that in fact, they work to have fun rather than simply for pay. And the companies that ignore this are essentially bribing their employees and will pay the price in the long term in a lack of commitment and loyalty. 

And 20 years later, Pfeffer has written a book that shows how far we’ve come over those 20 years, and the title of the book is Dying for a Paycheck. Ed Lawler had a book back in 1996 that was tremendously influential, called From the Ground Up. And his summary about the effects of compensation was many organizations end up, and I’m quoting him, many organizations end up using an enormous amount of time to allocate small amounts of money to individuals based on an uncertain assessment of performance in the hope that performance will improve. It’s the kind of corporate fantasy that takes time, effort and resources, but has few positive outcomes. 

So I think we’ve known this for, let’s look at these two quotations, for decades, and it’s time to move on. 

6:19: AM: Yes, and we’re sort of still stuck in the old paradigms. So if you set up a direct competition between the motivating effects of self-interest versus the motivating effects of helping others, which would win? 

JB: So, no pun intended as I think you’ll see in my answer, but I would say that hands down, it’s motivating others. And this is why I would say; it’s based on one study, but I think it’s a very powerful study. It was conducted by Adam Grant and David Hoffman. And what they were looking at was how do you promote hand washing in hospitals, which is clearly an important public health issue. It certainly became more apparent at the beginning of the pandemic when we thought hand washing was so important. 

So they conducted two studies. In the first study, what they do is they go around in a hospital and on top of all the hand washing stations, they have one of two posters. The one poster simply says, Handwashing prevents you from catching disease. And on top of the other hand washing station, it just changes one word, and it says, Hand washing prevents patients catching disease. 

In the first study, what they look at, it’s a quantifiable outcome, is the amount of soap that is used. And in the second study, it’s a different measure. They have external observers, unobtrusively watching for the extent to which people use hygienic hand washing techniques. And hands down, you find more soap used and people being more hygienic when the poster says hand washing prevents others from catching disease. 

Findings like these raise huge questions about the very nature of human motivation. It turns out that it’s not all about us. It turns out that in today’s world, we get a lot of meaning from believing, from knowing the impact that we have on other people. I think this is huge, and I think it may mean that we have to start to change the mindset in organizations. 

If I can give a big example, so to speak, for many years, for many decades, if you went into organizations and asked people, what’s the basis for how you motivate people in the organization? The answer you get is, oh we use Maslow, it’s the hierarchy of needs and so forth. And if you look at what they were telling us, the answer was, it’s all about self-actualization. We need people to self-actualize. 

I’m quoting Maslow here, and because the quote comes from decades and decades ago, it’s rather gender specific, but Maslow did say, a poet must write poetry, a musician must make music, a man must be what a man wants to be. And there could be nothing more self-focused than that. 

Let me take a different view. And that is the view of Victor Frankl, who wrote the book, Man’s Search for Meaning. And in the preface to one of the later editions, Frankl explicitly says, when he’s confronted about this, that, in a sense, the meaning comes from helping other people find their meaning in life. 

So we have two very different views of the world, and I would say, in terms of meaning at work, that Frankel wins hands down. I think that we get our meaning from helping others find their meaning at work. It’s no longer from self-actualization. 

10:22: AM: So where do you get your meaning? 

JB: I’ve always got my, I wouldn’t use the word meaning, I’ve always got my joy from when I work with grad students, for example, from just watching them bloom, if I can use the word. From watching them bloom as grad students and then watching them bloom through their careers. Working with people who come for exec ed, from watching them take on a simple idea and feel that they’ve got something powerful that helps them help others. 

11:02: AM: Can you talk about the distinction between task identity and task significance? That’s one thing in your book that I read that really helped me to understand the importance of how people create meaning from their work. 

JB: Sure. So just a comment to preface this is: One of the things as social scientists we do is we tend to focus mostly on recent research. And I think that’s often to the detriments of looking at some of the classics from decades ago. But it’s now 40 to 50 years ago, Richard Hackman and Greg Oldham in the 1970s came out with what is known as the job characteristics model. And to them, a singularly important part of job, of our work, was meaning. And back then, they said we get meaning from what they refer to as task significance and task identity. 

So what is task identity? It’s how absorbed we are psychologically with our work. When you ask people what they do, how do they answer? Do they. . . who they are, what do they do, do they tell you about their work? 

It’s really neat to try this. You’re going find some people immediately tell you what they do at work. Other people may tell you what they do elsewhere. They’re telling you where they get their meaning from. These are people who perhaps don’t even know at the end of the day that the day has ended, that they’re so absorbed in their work. 

It makes me think of the opposite. There’s a wonderful book by somebody by the name of Ben Hamper, the book is called Rivethead. Ben Hamper in the seventies and eighties was a line worker at GM. And in the book, Ben Hamper insists that from the perspective of a line worker, management is not the enemy. The clock is the enemy. And what does it mean by the clock? It’s the fact that the day goes so slowly because you’re not absorbed in what you do. So that’s task identity. 

Task significance is the next question. Does what you do all day make a difference for others? Does it make you feel proud? And over the past 20 years, there’s just accumulating evidence that this pro-social nature of our work is so important to people. 

13:45: AM: From what I understand, as well, over the past couple decades, we’ve seen employees given more autonomy. We’ve talked about that previously. But their task identity and task significance have dropped. So I don’t know if that’s because work has been segmented more, organizations have run very lean operations. They’ve been downsizing. I’m wondering, does the way work is currently organized make it more difficult for people to actually find meaning in their jobs? 

JB: Yes, I think it certainly does. I think the way work is organized has a large effect on how people find meaning in their jobs. Some employees have more autonomy and perhaps a larger group have less, recently. I guess a question I would ask is, does this overlap with those people who could work from home during the pandemic and those who could not? A comment that I made in a previous podcast, there’s new status associated with this increasing level of autonomy. 

But if we look at the people who could not, I think there’s an opportunity to provide them with more autonomy. Who are these with more autonomy and more meaning? Who are these people? They’re people that suddenly have a new title over their work that describes their work, and that’s essential workers. Before the pandemic, we would not have called people who do work in supermarkets, in transportation and so forth, we would not have used the term essential workers. We have a newfound respect for the work that they do, but I think it really depends on how we handle this going forward. I think we did a really poor job during the pandemic. 

I’ll give you an example. I think that we took these people at the beginning of the pandemic, we took these jobs, and you may recall, certainly across North America, roundabout May of 2020 we suddenly gave these people a pay increase to reflect how important their work was. You may remember standing outside and banging your pots to respect how important their work was. And, unfortunately, that lasted a very short period of time before corporations withdrew the pay increase. We stopped banging pots, and they went from zero to hero to zero. And I think there was a corresponding loss in meaning at work. They again felt that they weren’t essential and so forth. 

Feeling that your work is essential will provide you with meaning in your work. There’s a wonderful study that shows that the people who do this kind of work were not surprised when they went from zero to hero and back to zero in a short period of time. So there are these opportunities to help people experience meaning in the work that many people feel would be most difficult to provide meaning, but we have to consciously work out how to help them experience that. 

17:17: AM: Right. So organizations have a role then in enhancing the experience of meaningful work. And, so in that case, what do you suggest they do? Or what can they do to help that? 

JB: When we’re faced with something that seems as large as this, we, I think, have a tendency to go and look for very large-scale solutions. But I think that the solutions are far easier than we might think. It’s the little things that are so important. It is reminding people of just how much their work matters, especially in tough times. 

An example of a study that came out in the pandemic, in the early days of the pandemic in China, in the ICU of a hospital in a city close to the centre of the pandemic. The study was conducted on ICU employees. They took about 65 healthcare workers. They randomly divided them into two groups: half the group got an email or a communication with exactly the same information. I mean, it was really simple. I forget exactly how many words were in it, but probably 150 words, not a big communication, just reminding people how important their work was. 

And the effects over a two-week period were dramatic. So based on external observations, the people who received that communication, what was referred to in the study as their take-charge work, which is absolutely critical in an ICU environment, increased by 27 per cent over two weeks. And their self-report of engagement went up 10 per cent over two weeks, from what? An email. 

I think we forget that just reminding people of how important their work is can have such dramatic effects. So don’t take it for granted. Don’t think that people will feel uncomfortable if we just go and tell them how important their work is, that there’s going to be no effect. 

Last little suggestion. If we think back to when we started out, we probably started out with pretty boring work. And just listening to people, what I’ve learned is everybody plays a form of the game, which I call If I Were the Boss. And they think, if I were the boss, the way I would change this work is I would do A, B, or C to make it more meaningful, more safe, more whatever. 

So a suggestion I would make is to go and ask people how would they make their work more meaningful. I would think that people would be delighted that you’re asking, and you’d probably surprise yourself at the quality of the answers that you would get. 

20:34: AM: I’m struck by how simple a lot of these so-called interventions are. It doesn’t actually take much to move the needle. 

JB: I think that’s what I try and point out in the book. There are seven elements, I believe, to a productive, healthy and safe workplace. So there are seven chapters, each dealing with one of these dimensions. And in each chapter, I introduce an evidence-based intervention. And I think when you look at the interventions, what you find is they’re all doable. And despite the fact that what we’re trying to do in each case is change something big, the intervention itself is a lot smaller, a lot more doable. I think from a cost perspective, a lot more reasonable. 

So I think that there should be a dose-dependent relationship between the outcome we need and the input we need to provide. And I think we get that notion from the medical field. I think it turns out that it may be the opposite, that sometimes the bigger the change we need, the smaller the input. 

The challenge really is not whether we can turn our organizations upside down and inside out. I think the challenge is, what are the smallest things we can do to have the most significant effects over people’s lives? 

22:12: AM: You cite the story of the museum guard sitting for seven and a half hours and forbidden any form of mental simulation or distraction. Now this is an extreme case, but I think a lot of people could probably relate. You and I have spoken to people who feel their job has no positive impact on others just because of the nature of what they do. So if meaning in one's work is so important, what do you say to these people? 

JB: I think I’d probably respond to two levels. And the first level would be, why do we always couch these questions in terms of what do we say to these employees? Perhaps we could achieve a lot more if we asked this question of their employers. 

But having said that, I think this corresponds with thinking that what the challenge is to how do we employ people who are more resilient, who are more likely to be able to withstand these stresses? And by stresses, I include boredom. Boredom can be awfully stressful. Rather than taking a different approach and trying to create work environments that encourage motivation and encourage wellbeing. So I think that’s the one level that I think we could focus this. 

But if indeed we are left to focus on the employees in this instance, the question is how do we help them reframe their work? So we do need security guards at museums where there are in incredibly important and valuable artifacts. Can we help the security guards appreciate the value of the artifacts? Can we help them appreciate that actually they are not just security guards? I’m not just a security guard. I’m a custodian of a really valuable past. I’m a custodian of cultural artifacts. As part of the training, can we give a lecture on the value of artifacts? Can we help them to learn so much about the artifacts that they can even ask tourist questions? I think there are ways of helping them reframe the job. And as you can see from the examples I’ve given, more than just reframe the job in their heads, actually reframe what they do. 

24:36: AM: I guess we can learn something as well from people who are involved in so-called dirty work, slaughtering animals, sex work or embalmers at funeral parlors, who are among those who derive the most meaning from their work. And these are jobs that the rest of society deems physically or socially or morally repugnant. Are these cases really effective reframing by those who do these sorts of jobs? 

JB: So my response would be yes, and I think that we see more reframing going on in these jobs than elsewhere. And I think what we’ve learned about reframing has come, not surprisingly, from what is referred to as dirty work and what some people have referred, excuse me, to as bullshit jobs. 

I think that this situation provides a tremendous opportunity for management and leaders to go in and help people reframe their work. I had, two decades ago, I had a graduate student who did some research amongst funeral homes. And most people would think, oh I could never do that. And you can almost see them shuddering while they say that. And as I learned from that situation, when you ask people who do that work, how they do that work, a frequent response that you’re going to get is, we have the honour of working with people when they’re at their lowest point and helping pick them up. So what we see as a kind of work that we just could not imagine ourself being involved in, people have learned to reframe in a way that makes them proud to go to work each day. 

So it shows that one of the ways that leaders could have their most enduring effects is by simply helping people or helping people feel how appreciated, how valuable their work is. Helping provide the opportunities to help people rise. 

If I can tell a story that’s in this book, and I think it’s just such an important story. And it’s not specifically from the area of dirty work; it’s from perhaps boring work. The story comes from a former graduate student, MBA student, and on his first day in a big manufacturing plant in Toronto, one of the things they did was they had a small assembly line where they manufactured intravenous drips for infants. And you can imagine that might get pretty boring after a short period of time. And being the first day, he did what most people do on their first day, they would go around to people and say, hi, what do you do here? Basically, expecting to be told something like, I work on the assembly line, I’m a member of the union, whatever. And the response was, oh, we save babies. 

And he became intrigued: where the heck do you get the idea of “We save babies”? And he went and he found out that awhile before he became the head of that plant, a supervisor had organized that one day everybody got to work and there were school buses and they all went down to the Hospital for Sick Kids and spent, I believe it was a morning at the Hospital for Sick Kids in Toronto, and could just walk around and just look and see that what they did was save babies. For a long time, I’ve wanted to meet that supervisor. 

28:28: AM: And it is also true that people can love their work to death, that they really derive so much meaning from their work that they are almost left vulnerable to abusive bosses, in certain situations, and as you point out in your book. What are the warning sides that a person is taking meaning a bit too far? 

JB: I think that’s a great question, and there’s some really neat recent research to look to provide an answer, but I would just expand it. I think that meaning, like autonomy, is one of those workplace experiences or psychological needs where you can go too far, you can have too much of a good thing. But it’s not just that we should be concerned that people could be taken advantage of by their organizations and their leaders and their supervisors, but people may become so absorbed in their work that they get lost in it and they stop caring for themselves. 

What are the signs? I wish there were more research that helped us look at this, but here are some of the things that I would look at. Are the hours of work excessive? I think that we do see people spending just far too many hours involved in their work. I think what I would look for if it was a group or an organization: Are individuals taking time or away from work because of health issues, because of physical health issues or mental health issues? 

If I was managing a large group, is there an unusual number of mental health requests for time away from work? Is there an unusual level of absenteeism or turnover? Is there an unwillingness to say no to unusual requests? Are family relationships suffering? I think the signs may well be there. The question is, are we willing to look for them and are we listening to listen to them? 

And unfortunately, I would say that my experiences, this is not research based, is that the science are often there but we tend not to take notice of them. To some extent, I would say an important question is, is it because people love their job too much or because people fear that they might lose their job? And that may be an important consideration in the next year or so as our economies go through more layoffs. 

AM: So deep meaning, but with balance. 

JB: Deep meaning with balance. If I can give just one example, why do we always think in terms of a perhaps false dichotomy? And what I’m thinking about is work versus family. Wouldn’t we all be a whole lot more healthy if we thought about work and family? Perhaps the lesson is that we can get meaning from more than one place in life. And that’s what we need to encourage. 

AM: Thanks, Julian. 

JB: Thank you. 

[Music playing] 

AM: For more on Julian Barling’s vision of productive, healthy and safe workplaces, pick up a copy of his book, Brave New Workplace, from your favourite bookseller. Brave New Workplace is published by Oxford University Press. 

Thank you to podcast producer Meredith Dault and to Bill Cassidy for editing support. And finally, for practical evidence-based insights on the organizational world and business and finance in general, check out Smith Business Insight at