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Why Do We Work?

Why Do We Work?

Preparing for the future of work starts with a better understanding of what actually motivates your employees.

  • min read


Why Do We Work?

This article originally appeared on Forbes.com.

How is it that companies that want to sell us products or sell our profile to advertisers know more about what motivates us than the companies we work for?

While sales and marketing organizations drill into detailed customer data, extracting insights in a quest to personalize their offers to individual consumers, corporate human resources (HR) systems too often treat all employees the same. They ignore the simple fact that different things motivate different people.

The working world of the 21st century is quickly changing, and companies need to keep up. Some 53% of people surveyed in the US by Bain Futures say that Covid-19 has caused them to reconsider their work-life balance. Sixty-six percent of those asked in China and India agree, as do 68% of respondents in Brazil. Facing labor shortages and gaps in critical skills, employers are struggling to retain the good people they already have while bringing in the new talent they need. Even the nature of work itself is changing with the growth of the gig economy, remote work, and automation continuing to push people toward jobs in areas such as healthcare and hospitality that rely on uniquely human skills.

To adapt to these changes and unlock the full potential of an organization’s labor force, it’s important to understand the different motivations of employees. Similar to shopping habits and brand preferences, the things that motivate people to work can get quite personal.

Fortunately, there are patterns. Research by Bain’s global thinktank identified six archetypes that describe most workers.

  • Operator: looks for meaning outside of work, does not seek to stand out at work, tends to shy away from risk, and often views colleagues as friends.
  • Artisan: seeks out work that fascinates them, motivated by pursuit of mastery, desires autonomy, and places lower emphasis on camaraderie.
  • Striver: wants to make something of their life, motivated by status and compensation, forward planner, and often risk averse, competitive, and transactional.
  • Giver: finds meaning in helping others, least motivated by money, strong team spirit, and values personal growth and learning.
  • Explorer: values freedom and experiences, craves variety and autonomy, willing to trade security for flexibility, and less motivated by status.
  • Pioneer: on a mission to change the world, autonomous and risk tolerant, identifies profoundly with their work, and has a vision that is often at least partially altruistic.

Trends appear across countries, professions, age groups, education levels, and hierarchies. In Japan, 29% of the population are strivers, the largest single group. Operators are No. 2. In the US, however, operators are No. 1 (23%), and strivers are No. 2 (21%). The US has a high percentage of givers (19%), as do Indonesia (21%), Brazil (22%), and Nigeria (23%). In Germany, operators are the largest group (23%), but strivers and artisans are tied for second with 21%. In the US, 19% of people with a bachelor’s degree are operators, compared with 29% of those with a high school education, or less. Eleven percent of college grads are pioneers, but only 7% of high school grads are. Twenty-five percent of executives are pioneers, while only 13% of knowledge professionals and 6% of frontline workers fit that description. One can see the potential for miscommunication. Executives might be inclined to use language suited to a pioneer out of personal preference, missing the fact that it doesn’t necessarily resonate with the front line.

The most important insight of this research is the finding that multiple archetypes exist in all cases. Every company will have a mixture of these six types. But too often HR systems and company culture cater to one archetype in particular. As they do, they run the risk of alienating others who are motivated by different things.

As business leaders and as a society more broadly, we don’t have all the answers to today’s workforce challenges. But the authors of this research saw three themes that companies can think about as they consider the best way to navigate the 21st century talent market.

  • Move from talent taking to talent making. Long-term reskilling is as important as hiring. Reskilling can cover technical and trade skills, tools to solve specific business problems, and ways to build personal capacity to manage stress, be resilient, and lead a healthy, full life. Most organizations underinvest in talent development, and that needs to change.
  • Embrace the diversity, and tailor to archetypes. Leverage the six archetypes to help individuals and teams meet their full potential. Reflect on how well your company knows its workforce and what motivates the people who comprise it.
  • Replace “career ladders” with “career passports.” Jettison traditional rigid career tracks in favor of a more flexible model in which individuals can accumulate different experiences and certifications that can qualify them for a new role, one that may or may not be in the same HR “lane” that they fit into today. Think of this as stamps in a passport rather than one ladder with rung after rung.

Workforce dynamics are changing all around us, and will continue to evolve in complex, dynamic ways. Better understanding people’s motivations, why they work, will help us develop more tailored systems that will create more healthy work environments and unlock greater productivity.


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