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Clayton Christensen On How To Find Work That You Love

When we find ourselves stuck in unhappy careers, it is often the result of a fundamental misunderstanding of what truly motivates us, says Clayton Christensen, co-author of the new book "How Will You Measure Your Life?"

Back in 1976, two economists, Michael Jensen and William Meckling, published a paper looking at why managers don’t always behave in a way that is in the best interest of shareholders. The root cause, as Jensen and Meckling saw it, is that people work in accordance with how you pay them.

Many managers have come to believe this, too: you just need to pay people to do what you want them to do, when you want them to do it.

The problem with thinking about incentives in this way is that there are powerful anomalies that it cannot explain. For example: some of the hardest working people on the planet are employed in charitable organizations. They work in the most difficult conditions imaginable; they earn a fraction of what they would if they were in the private sector. Yet it’s rare to hear of managers of nonprofits complaining about getting their staff motivated. The same goes for the military.

So how do we explain what is motivating them—if it’s not money?

Well, there is a second school of thought, which turns this thinking about incentives on its head. It acknowledges that although you can pay people to want what you want, incentives are not the same as motivation. True motivation is getting people to do something because they want to do it, in good times and in bad.

Frederick Herzberg, probably one of the most incisive writers on the topics of motivation, published a breakthrough article in the Harvard Business Review focusing on exactly this. Herzberg noted the common assumption that job satisfaction is one big continuous spectrum—starting with very happy on one end, and reaching all the way down to absolutely miserable on the other—is not actually the way our minds work. Instead, satisfaction and dissatisfaction are separate, independent measures.

This means that it’s possible, for example, to both love your job and hate it all at the same time.

This thinking on motivation distinguishes between two different types of factors: hygiene factors and motivation factors. On one side of the equation, there are the elements of work that, if not done right, will cause us to be dissatisfied. These are the hygiene factors: status, compensation, job security, work conditions, company policies, and supervisory practices. It matters, for example, that you don’t have a manager who manipulates you for his own purposes—or who doesn’t hold you accountable for things over which you don’t have responsibility. Bad hygiene causes dissatisfaction.

But even if you instantly improve the hygiene factors of your job, you’re not going to suddenly love it. At best, you just won’t hate it anymore. The opposite of job dissatisfaction isn’t job satisfaction, but rather an absence of job dissatisfaction. They’re not the same thing at all.

The Balance of Motivators and Hygiene Factors

So, what are the factors that will cause us to love our jobs? These are what Herzberg’s research calls motivators. Motivation factors include challenging work, recognition, responsibility, and personal growth. Motivation is much less about external prodding or stimulation, and much more about what’s inside of you and inside of your work.

The lens of Herzberg’s theory gave me insight into the career choices that my own classmates made. Some of them had chosen careers using hygiene factors as the primary criteria; income was often the most important of these. On the surface, they had lots of good reasons to do exactly that. They had given up years of their working lives and viewed their education as an investment; they wanted to see a good return on that investment.

Yet, many of those same classmates had written entrance essays on their hopes for using their education to tackle the world’s most vexing social problems or pursue their dreams of becoming entrepreneurs. Periodically, as we were all considering our post-graduation plans, we’d try to keep ourselves honest: "What about doing something you really love?" "Don’t worry," came back the answer. "This is just for a couple of years. I’ll pay off my loans, get myself in a good financial position. Then I’ll chase my real dreams."

But somehow that early pledge to return to their real passion after a couple of years kept getting deferred. It wasn’t too long before some of them privately admitted that they had actually begun to resent the jobs they’d taken—for what they now realized were the wrong reasons. Worse still, they found themselves stuck. Their lifestyles had expanded to fit their incomes, and that’s a trap that can be very hard to find your way out of.

The point isn’t that money is the root cause of professional unhappiness. It’s not. The problems start occurring when it becomes the priority over all else, when you’ve satisfied the hygiene factors but the quest remains only to make more money. Herzberg’s theory of motivation suggests you need to ask yourself a different set of questions: Is this work meaningful to me? Will I have an opportunity for recognition and achievement? Am I going to learn new things?

Once you get this right, the more measureable aspects of your job will fade in importance. As the saying goes; find a job you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.

Excerpted from How Will You Measure Your Life? by Clayton M. Christensen, James Allworth, and Karen Dillon, to be published May 15, 2012 by Harper Business, an imprint of HarperCollins.

Clayton M. Christensen is the Kim B. Clark Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School, and is regarded as one of the world’s foremost experts on innovation and growth. James Allworth is a graduate of the Harvard Business School, and worked formerly at Apple Inc and Booz & Company. Karen Dillon was formerly the Editor of the Harvard Business Review and Deputy Editor of Inc Magazine. Their latest book, How Will You Measure Your Life? (HarperCollins, May 2012), aims to teach readers how to think—about life and purpose—by sharing powerful research theories about success and failure.

[Image: Flickr user Paloetic]