But What’s My Motivation?

December 20th, 2013 by Andrea Bennett

A new study looks at the science behind categorizing workers’ motivations.

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

A new study may give valuable insight on how you can – or can’t – program your children to be motivated workers. While classifying people’s different motivations for work isn’t new, a study from the University of Michigan delves into what causes people’s motivations to differ. In exploring the origins of adult’s work orientations, a press release related to the study stated, “The orientations of [workers’] parents play a stronger role than other forces such as religion, personality or profession.”

The reason for the study, which builds on the 1997 work by Yale University’s Dr. Amy Wrzesniewski, contends that with people working harder than ever and changing jobs more rapidly, it is important to understand why people see their work in a certain way.

The classic motivations researchers recognize:

Job-oriented workers: They pursue their passions “through non-work domains,” working for a paycheck that funds the things they find more rewarding – like home life and hobbies. They tend to be eager to stop working or retire.

Career-oriented workers: These people are motivated by prestige, social status and advancement, and derive much of their identity from their career. Importantly, they may not care as much about the paycheck or the work as much as they enjoy their upward mobility.

Calling-oriented workers: Rather than paycheck or status, calling-oriented workers see their work as making a positive impact on the world, and may even define themselves more by their work than career-oriented workers.

So is it Nature or Nurture that helps create these categories? The new study found that career-oriented fathers are more likely to raise career-oriented kids. Furthermore, people who are close to their fathers during adolescence are more likely to take on the father’s work ideals, whatever they may be. On the other hand, teens that are close to their mothers are less likely to grow up job-oriented; and career-oriented mothers are not any more likely to raise career-oriented kids. So while teens’ perceptions of their work ethic might shape their own, you can’t program your kids.

And, of course, if you are trying to program your kids toward some orientation, remember that outside forces like a crummy economy are likely to thwart your efforts. As Wayne Baker, professor and chair of management and organization at U-M’s Ross School of business said on the university’s news blog, “I think it’s hard to think about the higher purpose of your work if you are fearful of losing your job.”

Could you classify yourself as a certain type of worker? And would you hope that your child would be the same type – or different – from you?