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Why Work?

by Tom Malone on April 8, 2010


tom-malone's picture

Why Work?

Most economic theories (and many managers) assume that the best way to get what you want from workers is give them the right financial incentives.

But most real people have lots of reasons for working besides just making money. They work to have fun, to socialize with others, to challenge themselves, to find meaning in their lives, and for many other reasons. To bring out people’s best efforts in their work, we need to engage more of these non-monetary motivations.

Of course, there’s nothing new about the fact that people are often more dedicated and creative when they are doing work they enjoy or find meaningful. But in our increasingly knowledge-based and innovation-driven economy, human brains—not capital—are becoming the primary drivers of business success. And having dedicated, creative workers can often mean the difference between business success and failure.

So how can we engage people’s best efforts? How can we make work more fun?

One of the best ways to make work fun is to give people more control over what they do. In my book The Future of Work, I talked about how giving people more control—more freedom—in business is now becoming feasible in many more situations. One of the key enablers of this change is that cheap communication technologies now make it possible for many more people to have enough information to make more decisions for themselves.

For instance, eBay’s electronic infrastructure lets hundreds of thousands of people sell products to a worldwide marketplace. But these eBay sellers aren’t employees of eBay, following orders from eBay managers. Instead, the eBay sellers are essentially independent storeowners, deciding for themselves what to sell, when to sell it, how to advertise it, and how to price it.

Even though both eBay and Walmart sell huge volumes of retail products, eBay does it in a way that gives much more freedom to its sellers than Walmart sales clerks have. Is it more fun to be an eBay seller than a Walmart clerk? I suspect it often is. And I suspect that eBay sellers—on average—probably bring more energy, creativity, and dedication to their work than a typical Walmart clerk.

Another way of thinking about how to make work fun is to look at some of the most fun activities around—games—and try to use the same features that make games fun to make work more fun. Almost 30 years ago, in my Ph.D. thesis, I used this strategy to suggest how to make education more fun by incorporating features of highly motivating video games. And, surprisingly, the framework I developed then still applies—with some adaptation—to making work fun today.

The framework highlights three important features of highly motivating environments like video games: challenge, fantasy, and curiosity.

Challenging environments are those where you are always confronting challenges that are on the edge of your capabilities—not too easy and not too difficult. It may seem strange to use this example, but I just saw the movie The Hurt Locker, and one of the main characters in the movie was essentially addicted to the life-threatening challenge of disarming dangerous bombs in Iraq. Was his job fun? Most people probably wouldn’t think so, but for him the challenge made his job almost like a game, and he brought huge amounts of dedication to doing his work.

Many video games are also engaging because of the fantasies they evoke—taking on alternative personalities, killing enemies, living in imaginary worlds. One analogy of fantasy in the work world is the meaning the work has for people. For instance, many contributors to Wikipedia are attracted, in part, by the grand vision of helping to create the world’s largest encyclopedia. They find this task so engaging that they are willing to spend lots of time working on it—for free.

Some jobs—like some computer games—are also great at engaging people’s curiosity. Engineers at Google, for instance, are allowed to spend one day per week working on projects of their own choosing. By letting engineers follow their own curiosity in this way, Google not only helps keep the engineers motivated and engaged, but Google also gets the benefits of the creative new products that often come from these efforts.

Still another way of thinking about how to make work fun is to consider what motivates people, in general. Of course, philosophers and social scientists have been thinking about this question for centuries, but in a recent paper of mine, we used a very simple way of summarizing people’s motivations. People do things for the following three reasons: money, love, and glory.

To take the work out of work, we need to focus on people’s desires, not for money, but for love and glory. For instance, many of the contributors to Wikipedia really enjoy the actual writing and editing of encyclopedia articles. You might even say they love it. And many of them also enjoy the opportunities to socialize electronically with the worldwide community of other Wikipedia contributors. Do they all love each other? No, of course not, but it’s probably not an exaggeration to say that many of them love the social interactions they have with each other while working on Wikipedia.

Giving people a chance at glory—or recognition—is also often a very good way to engage them deeply in their work. Many of the contributors to the Linux open source software system, for instance, are partly motivated by the chance to be recognized by their peers for their technical achievements. As with Wikipedia, the Linux community engages people’s motivations so deeply that most contributors work as volunteers—they don’t get paid at all for their “work.”

People will do all kinds of boring, meaningless work, if you pay them enough, and they need the money badly enough. But to thrive in today’s economy, companies need much more than just the grudging compliance of their workers. They need workers who are dedicated, creative, and truly engaged by the work they are doing. And to do that, companies need to make work more like play.

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antoinette-olson's picture

We all have our own reasons why we work. My main objective in working is to provide my boss or company a workforce that will benefit the company with my expertise and profession. At the same time, I can source my family and love ones through my hard-earned income. Give and take relationship really plays a great role in this situation. I offer dissertations at and this has been my primary source of income since then.

atna's picture
Hi.I found this article very intresting and relevent to my MIX submission.I named the "driver" behind actions as an "essence" .and it is more intresting that a shift in "essence " can change our undrestanding of our current reality.
yadav-chandna_1's picture
Dr. Malone,
Bulk of the global workforce lies outside the US. Whereas what you presume maybe true of the West, in developing countries workers may get as low as USD 2 to 3/- per day by working hard  for 8 hours! Theses are minimum wages prescribed by the Govt. in India and at these wage levels, which are 20% higher than last year's, workers can ill afford to think of fun.

As productivity of an economy increases, so does need for entertainment, fun and joyful creativity..  In poverty, there is necessity driven creativity leading at times to petty crime.

atna's picture
That's true. However , we  are all growth seeking beings no matter what is our current reality . Even a worker  with a low pay with a hard work is getting the essences of " achievement"or "joy",or"accomplishment". The point is that we should not judge the "form" of "joy" people are experiencing around the world.and we should be easy with the fact that form will change in each society by time , the form is different from society to society. and even the form is changed in one's life by time.Isn't it?
dan-pontefract's picture

Excellent post Dr. Malone.

I long have been an advocate of improving the way in which 'stories' are shared in an organization. If stories are more easily shared throughout the company or institution, the 'employee' can more easily gain the notion of 'glory'.

All too often our organizations are siloed, not only by process and information, but by glory itself. If we can instil a culture whereby the stories of our people are more easily shared, then I would suggest to you that is a small step in the right direction.

It's amazing when people are recognized for their efforts through stories, what that does both for the person being recognized and the trickle-down effect thereafter.

BTW: very very big fan of "The Future of Work". I must recommend it at least 25 times a year. Ground-breaking, yet inspirational for "2.0" leaders like me.