ON MOTIVATION

Posted in Rants on June 20th, 2013 by Ed

"Lisa, if you don't like your job, you don't strike. You just go in every day and do it really half-assed. That's the American way." – H. Simpson

Recently, a relative was telling me how disappointed she was in the school her kids (used to, but will no longer) attend. It seems that at this private Catholic K-8 the teachers threw in the towel with about a month to go in the school year. The majority of May was filled with the kinds of things K-8 schools/teachers do when they want a day off – parties, Movie Days, assemblies, etc. The kids were having multiple "parties" per day to celebrate, well, anything the school could think of. The music teacher devoted two entire weeks to showing the students Toy Story…twice (??). In short, she told me that many parents were very upset, feeling that they had paid for nine months of classes and had barely gotten eight. Being a Catholic school, the tuition is not an inconsequential amount.

I sympathized. She told me tale after tale of things the school used to fill the days with anything but lesson plans and actual academic activities and her anger made sense to me. Not trying to stoke the fires or start a political debate, I just noted that this was not rare at any level of education, but was particularly common in private schools. Catholic schools are known for paying less than dick, so in this situation the kids are in the hands of teachers who haven't gotten a raise in 15 years and who were getting paid poorly to begin with. It doesn't surprise me, I pointed out, that in a situation like this people might go out of their way to do as little work as possible. When a job devalues employee, literally and figuratively, their response is often to work just hard enough to avoid getting fired.

The losers, of course, are the students. The parents are right to be angry, but I understand the mindset of the teachers. They are rational, and if the job isn't paying then they will seek to improve their lot by making the work easier. And nothing's easier than not teaching. I don't think she found this explanation persuasive, and I didn't push it. But it raises a larger question that I think about often: how hard do we have a right to "expect" people to work?

Even though many people can and do complain loudly about poor service, deep down I think we all understand that the kid at Taco Bell makes minimum wage, doesn't give a shit about the job, and isn't exactly going to go at 110% every single day. But how "hard" is a teacher supposed to work? Is he cheating you if he re-uses lesson plans rather than coming up with brand new and up-to-date ones every year? Is your doctor cheating you if she runs a test and diagnoses you rather than running all of the tests and spending hours reading about every possible thing that might cause your symptoms? Is your pilot lazy because he uses autopilot? Is your waitress lazy because she hasn't refilled your coffee as many times as you might prefer?

People are judgmental. Combine that with the fact that we pay for things (using the money that we have made our own sacrifices to obtain) and expect to be satisfied, and commenting on the work ethic of others is practically a national pastime. The previous thread on pensions noted that some people seem to think they invented the concept of hard work – nobody but me has even done an honest day's work! Some people certainly do have that attitude. But often the complaints people make (as in the story retold above) are valid. The part I can't figure out is what to do about it. No employer is going to raise the salary of employees who clearly half-ass their jobs, yet if the compensation is low most people simply aren't going to work very hard.

From the teachers' perspective, what is the motivation to work 16 hours per day and move heaven and Earth to be the best teacher since Jaime Escalante if they get paid the same $31,000 per year for being…mediocre? Business schools have spent 30 years churning out people who believe in motivation by intimidation – work hard or else we will fire you, replace you, move to Mexico, and so on. And yes, an employer certainly has a right to expect employees to fulfill their obligations. This is where we see the large gap between fulfilling the requirements of a job – i.e., doing the bare minimum – and doing a good job. "Work hard and you will get promoted / get a raise" is the natural response, but in many of our workplaces I think we discover fairly quickly that the raises aren't coming no matter how hard we work (or they come, but with a truckload of additional burdens that vastly outweigh them).

That's the end result about all of this "Woe is us" from the owner and manager classes – we're constantly told that we can't be paid more ("We just can't afford it! We're barely breaking even!") but we're not expected to react strategically. The rational thing to do, if you know you can't profit from working harder, is to figure out the minimum amount of work you can do under the terms of your employment.

Of course, when certain people in our society do what is rational, it's "smart". When the rest of us respond rationally to incentives, we're lazy.