Dignity & Performance
These days, everyone wants to talk about strategies for motivating employees. The topic has exploded over the past decade or so because our understanding of motivation has evolved. Decades ago, people thought we were motivated primarily by compensation. Pay people more and they’ll work harder, right? Fortunately, we’ve come to understand that human beings are more complicated than that.
Now, culture is all the rage. Thought leaders across every industry preach the effectiveness of building great work environments and weaving perks into the career experience. Article after article, blog post after blog post, headline after headline. The same talking points—largely repackaged.
What is culture? According to the experts, it’s a magical confluence of work and fun that improves performance across the board.
But the culture peddlers are missing the point. Yes, it’s important to create an atmosphere that drives and inspires great work, but are employee happiness and performance really as simple as a few perks and a pinch of autonomy?
We don’t think so.
Building a House of Cards
Modern companies hear about the importance of culture and they set out to build one in their own organization. Where do they start?
They hire smart, young people. They pay them well and offer quality benefits. They put a Pacman arcade game in the kitchen. Boom—great culture. Right?
Well, sort of. Things like autonomy, having a good work environment, and being paid fairly do create a more effective work environment. This is proven. But a corporate culture built on these things alone is like a house of cards—it has no structure, no stability, because these perks are meant to exist as side effects of a deeper philosophy. They’re not meant to be the backbone of an entire organization.
In other words perks are icing, not the cake.
Dignity Is the Cake
These things seem to motivate employees because they are related to one simple founding principle: dignity.
We live in a world where most companies value our output, not our humanity. We live in a world where we spend more time running from ourselves through entertainment and consumerism than embracing and reconciling our actual selves with our ideal selves. We live in a world where dignity and self worth can seem out of reach—where so many people wait until 6 p.m. for their lives to begin.
That’s why purpose matters. That’s why valuing employees as people pays dividends. Feeling a sense of purpose during working hours keeps people engaged and hungry and motivated—moreso than any amount of zeroes on a paycheck.
Firms that can produce the most widgets in the fastest and cheapest manner aren’t going to necessarily be the industry leaders in the future. Firms that value people as people and provide employees with an opportunity to do work that matters will win out in the end.
Dignity Can’t Be Faked
So where does dignity come from? Well, just like you can’t wrap a few perks in a bow and call it culture, you can’t jot down a phony mission statement and call it dignity. Real dignity means building purpose and respect into your business from the ground up and allowing that mission to inform every decision you make.
Ultimately, humans need to feel like they matter. At the end of our lives, we aren’t going to measure ourselves by how many widgets we’ve built or sold, but rather by the impact we’ve had on the world around us. We can give lip service to culture. We can discuss which perks seem to motivate the staff. We can create wellness programs that try to foster team cohesion. But these things mean nothing if we aren’t providing an outlet for employees to feel fulfilled. And the fact is you can’t turn a cash-grab into something your team can be proud of at the drop of a hat. You have to earn it with a mission that’s worth believing in.
The bottom line is that dignity amounts to having our lives mean something. A life that starts at 6 p.m. isn’t a life at all, and it’s about time the business world understood this.
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I totally agree with your views. I worked at a hospital that fostered the feeling of purpose and truly making a difference in the people around us. Then a large for profit company took over and I have seen the devastation of devaluing what the employees were the most motivated by. The new CEO made it known from the beginning that "IT IS JUST A JOB AND WE SHOULDN'T THINK OF OUR EMPLOYEMENT AS ANYTHING OTHER THAN A JOB"!!! This particular Hospital has been on a major decline since.