Why Do People Work?

People work for money obviously!

We all know the answer to that don’t we? Our team leader, supervisor and manager training courses tell us? People go to work for money to keep a roof over their heads, raise a family and enjoy a few luxuries.

We are trained to regard human resources, units of labour, as primary inputs to getting the job done. We are taught to measure their performance against target, train them, and manage their performance. The Human Resources Department provides all the legal tools that allow us to do that legally.

Isn’t it a shame that all that misses the point.

People do go to work for the money, but what they do at work, depends on something else.

There are selfish, very human, reasons why people work. Let’s explain these.

The Game Players

Who doesn’t like to play games? Do you like to beat your satnav’s prediction of arrival time? Save a few pennies on your weekly shop? You might play football or some other sport. Games are a part of life.

Have you ever wondered why, beyond a certain amount, people love making money? It’s a measure of how good they are, a measure that allows them to value themselves, to feel they have a life well-lived. I suggest that most Chief Executives of large organizations have that measure of their self-worth.

They are not alone, how many salesmen do you know who are driven by commission, the need to be on top of the scoreboard?

Money isn’t the only way to keep score. The UK has the Honours system for example.

The Self-motivated

These are the people who do what they do because they have a long-term personal goal.

The migrant worker who will pick fruit for minimum wage, year after year, for example, often living in poor accommodation – simply living to work. But they have a personal goal. Their work in the UK allows them to build a nest egg so they can purchase a fruit farm of their own, back home.

At the other extreme is the Investment banker. The wheeler dealers working 23 hours a day giving their whole life to the job in exchange for seven figure bonuses. They have their own dream, to retire at 30 to the country and make cheese or some such.

This type of human is working for a life changing amount of money. They are working toward their new life.


The rest of us have different motivations, once keeping a roof over our head and food on the table is accomplished.

We look for more from our lives. Family, hobbies, and voluntary work give us a sense of satisfaction, a feeling of fulfilment, a sense of a worthwhile life well lived.

We spend as much time at work as we do with family and in our private lives. Work should provide us with that sense of satisfaction, feeling fulfilled and a sense of a well lived, worthwhile life too.

Otherwise, it is just a boring way to keep that roof over your head.


If proof is needed, the Office of National Statistics reports that in 2015, 1.93 Billion hours of formal voluntary activity took place. That is on top of 52 billion hours of paid work.

( Contains public sector information licensed under the Open Government Licence v3.0)

Clearly people do voluntary, unpaid work for a reason – a selfish, very human, reason. They want to help someone or something to feel they are doing a worthwhile job. That their life has meaning.

How do you make people want to work?

Three simple ways.

More money

More money is the politician’s favourite solution. Whatever the problem, if it isn’t achieving throw more money at it.

Whatever the question, more money will fix it.

How much proof do you need to see for yourself that it doesn’t work?

A worthwhile job

My apologies for picking on the NHS again, but it is an example we can all see.

Is there a better, more worthwhile job anywhere?

These people help make their fellow humans well, relieve pain, help the sick and extend people’s lives.

The way they are managed has driven all that sense of self-worth from them. The cure to all the NHS’s ailments is more money as we are told constantly.

More money does not explain the astonishing fall out rate of General Practitioners, who retire as soon as they can, or the Nurses, who are leaving the profession in droves.

The management style, the target driven performance managed style, has killed their self-fulfilment.

Some large organisations do manage to bring their sense of self-worth alive.

I would suggest the Virgin brand is one such an organisation. A clear goal, a sense of style and a pride in doing it well.

Are you proud to tell your friends and acquaintances who you work for?

How do I make the jobs in my organisation fulfilling?

I am sure you have given everyone training, spent heavily on resources and done everything you have been sold to raise employee engagement, employee happiness and employee experience.

Yet you still believe the place is lacklustre, lost its spark and missing a vital energy.

The answer to “What on Earth do I do next?” is complex but simple.

  • Delegate more
  • Communicate more
  • Create your own games
  • Continuous Improvement
  • Get help!

Motivation Matters is here to help make things better.

Posted in Perform.