“Success doesn’t motivate me as much as integrity does.”

Becky Sauerbrunn

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry


As the United States edges its way out of pandemic economic mode into, well, whatever economic mode will be, there is an incredibly small minded conversation going on about unemployment benefits.

On one side its “we need to inventive people to work by removing unemployment benefits (i.e., people are lazy)” and on the other side its “we need to continue giving money to people (i.e., well, I don’t know why other than because they are unemployed they need some help)”. Its a bit, okay, significantly more nuanced that that. Regardless. Both sides not only show a lack of understanding, but its kind of a lazy old school way of thinking about monetary carrots & sticks.

It seems like maybe, just maybe, some of these leader idiots could think a bit about real motivation and what motivates people to work (because the majority of people really don’t mind working).

I have not done the research but if I did, I bet the majority of people would answer some questions this way:

      • “yeah, I do like working because I am good at ‘x’”
      • “It is extremely tiring, and demotivating, to work paycheck to paycheck and month to month”
      • “I know work isn’t supposed to always make me happy, but I thought work wasn’t supposed to always make me unhappy”
      • “I’d like to work so it wasn’t just about the money”
      • “I worry I cannot help my children’s future the way I should”
      • “I know I will never be a millionaire, but living has to be a little easier, doesn’t it?


The truth is that most people do not avoid work and working, instead they avoid work, and working, that is unsatisfying and unmotivating or even de-motivating (and, yes, there is a significant difference between unmotivating and de-motivating). That de-motivation can have a number of causes of which low pay is only one.

I am not suggesting money doesn’t matter because of course it does. What I am saying is that motivation, REAL motivation, is intrinsic. It resides within. Heart & soul type of stuff. For many people it’s the future. For example. I could have a good paying job, even work with some people I like doing some things that I like doing, but that pay doesn’t equate to a future. No retirement or, if there is even a glimpse of retirement, it is not anything extravagant and most likely includes some part time work just to make sure those unexpected bills have some cover. In other words. The future is fragile. And, well, if your future is fragile that tends to dent one’s hope.

Which makes me circle back to motivation. Far too many of these leader idiots think in a causal way – do work, get money. And while I could give them a lesson on intrinsic motivators, I think I would focus more on the future state.

People like working, they aren’t lazy.

People like doing things that give them pride, they aren’t machines.

People like earning money, but enough money to not worry is usually enough.


I think most people are missing the grander narrative. For most people, while I do believe a critical aspect is meaning & mattering in the workplace (but that is a topic for another day), for most people they just feel like it should be a just a bit easier. I am willing to work 45 hours a week, but just to live a precarious life with no real future? I don’t need some fantabulous prize, I’d just like it to be just a little bit easier.

And let me be clear.

‘Easier’ is not an equal opportunity employer.

This isn’t about some absurdish 4 day work week discussion. Look. I am not opposed to the research that shows a 4-day work week can be healthier and actually create more productivity – in some jobs & industries – but if you ever want to better understand the haves versus the have-nots or inequality (or inequities), just bring up a 4-day work week at the plumbers association convention, the Teamsters Union meetings, the steel workers conference, the farmer’s gatherings, the small business chamber of commerce gatherings. They would look at you like you were fucking nuts. Sure. They are not opposed to working less days and spending more time with family/whatever, but they just cannot see a viable path in their lives to do so.

Which leads me back to motivation.

Most of those people who would look at you like you were fucking nuts work hard and see a future (assuming someone doesn’t try to kill their industry … but that is also another topic for another day). They have hope for their future therefore the work, and the money, become less a focus. Heck. Even ‘easier’ takes on some different dimensions.

“Motivation is the engine of change. Now you want this, now you want that. As our motives change, so we see the world from different perspectives and become different types of people.”

Michael Apter

Hard work is hard, but not so hard that it doesn’t have a payout. In a way I am suggesting Hope in a value equation way. I would argue this has less to do with Value and more about ‘belief.’ Belief is like hope. It draws people toward it. It inspires motivation.

That said. it’s a twofold belief challenge. Business owners, and government leaders, need to believe in people. Believe if given the opportunity to make choices, do the right things, the arc of their behavior (driven by intentions) will bend toward productivity & profitability. That hope fulfilled for their future is an intrinsic motivator for the productivity business oh so desires. As a corollary. People need to believe in people (themselves). While we may innately know we can make decisions, assume responsibility & do the right things, the business world has not encouraged people to think that way. In fact. Business,and government, kind of does the opposite – they assume laziness and lack of ability to lead, be productive on your own and any progress without incentives (or disincentives).


I will admit. I am not a big “carrot & stick” organizational motivation fan or believer and absolutely hate gamification. When I hear about disgruntled employees or negativity whispers in the hallways I very rarely begin thinking or discussing “what can we do to create a more positive culture in the organization”, but rather turn the microscope on the leadership and ask “what are you saying? What are you doing?”  I feel like if people are not motivated its because, well, what they are doing just isn’t that motivating – particular when viewed thru some desired future state lens.

Sure. I believe it is foolish to believe every work day can be met with passionate enthusiasm. There are far too many things that can affect the moods of the individuals let alone the mood of the organization to believe everyday should be, let alone could be, 100%.  But if the business world sees a largish group of people with a persistent “less than optimal” mood one may start thinking the issue isn’t money, its something else.

Motivation, or the most sustainable version of it, is intrinsic. The fact is that someone is motivated or they aren’t. That doesn’t mean you cannot tailor some management techniques to specific individuals but organizational motivation is not an initiative nor is it some “list of things we are going to do.”

Motivation, just like negativity and being positive, is an internal engine.

I wish people would recognize that there truly is only one high grade gas you can put in this engine – the intangible aspects of business that offer meaning, progress and dignity (all of which, I would argue, is part of hope for a better future).

So, maybe we can stop talking about benefits disincentivizing people from working and talking more about why people do not want the jobs that are available. I say that because I can guarantee you it will not always be about money. It will be about hope and futures. Ponder.

Written by Bruce