How To Turn A Bad Job Into A Good One

Unraveling what makes people happy with their jobs may seem complicated, but it’s simpler than we think.

How To Turn A Bad Job Into A Good One
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New research from Gallup suggests that American workers are generally more satisfied with our jobs than we were 10 years ago. And why shouldn’t we be?


Research has offered us a plethora of productivity hacks including more efficient ways to take a break, and how to cozy up to colleagues to make work feel less like, well, work. For their part, executives at organizations both small and large can mine any number of solutions to tap the motivation of staff from changing the workspace itself to ditching the annual review.

But it hasn’t helped, according to Barry Schwartz, who claimed through a popular TED talk that the way we think about work is broken.

Indeed, despite increases in transparency, technology, and mobility, there still hasn’t been a magic bullet to connect employees and motivate them to do their best work. According to Deloitte’s 2015 Global Human Capital Trends survey, employee engagement and retention are among the top challenge companies face around the world.

In his new book, Why We Work, Schwartz aims to tackle the tricky issue of motivation that extends beyond simply punching a clock and collecting compensation for completing scheduled tasks. If workers are to be engaged, he posits, what does it take to turn even a rote job like packing boxes or answering phones in a call center into a meaningful and fulfilling daily experience?

What Really Makes Up A “Good” Job?

Schwartz points out that those people who have satisfying jobs are engaged in “job crafting”–they are contributing to the organization in spite of their job description, not because of it. For example, a custodian at a hospital believes in the facility’s mission of wellness and seeks to serve the patients and families he comes in contact with, not only by keeping the environment clean and orderly, but also by interacting with them when he can.

Some might shrink from the daily grind of swabbing floors and clearing trash cans. But the way Schwartz sees it, those duties don’t have much to do with the custodian having a “good” job. Instead, he cites several factors, in addition to believing in the organization’s purpose, that contribute to overall engagement and satisfaction with the work:

  • Broad discretion with social interaction
  • Little supervision
  • Challenge to get social interactions right by using empathy, good listening, and perceptiveness of when he can have those interactions, and when it’s best to stay in the background

It doesn’t take much to turn good work into bad, Schwartz contends.

But a paycheck isn’t adequate motivation, he says. He cites the work of Timothy Judge and colleagues who analyzed the results of 86 studies including 15,000 employees that, combined, suggested that the level of pay had very little effect on either job or pay satisfaction. We’ve seen this play out on a smaller scale at Gravity Payments, when some employees failed to increase their happiness, even though their minimum wage was raised to $70,000.

The Pros And Cons Of Incentive Systems

More destructive than a micromanager and rote work, Schwartz writes, is the incentive. The latest calculations of the Incentive Federation’s marketing survey indicate that incentives are a $76.9 billion industry. In other words, Cadillacs, steak knives, and other employee “rewards” are still big business.

The problem is that even though on the surface, such incentives should serve as a double motivator (I get a paycheck and then I get a bonus for doing more!), Schwartz says they have the potential to make good work bad, whether it’s in a factory or call center, in a doctor’s office or at a law firm.

A carefully crafted incentive system designed to produce top performance can often produce the opposite–competition among employees and efforts to game the system and look good on whatever metric is being used to assign pay and bonuses without actually producing the underlying results.

It seems that no matter how many times in the past we have gotten evidence that material incentives failed to produce results we sought from practicing professionals, we turn to them again the next time we want to improve quality. Somehow, systems designers repeatedly fail to appreciate that when material incentives are put front and center, other values essential to motivating employees get crowded out. And it is these other values that are responsible for excellent performance.

He points to lectures from Patrick Schiltz, a former corporate attorney turned law professor, who told his students, “You will become unethical, a little bit at a time.” Not by bribery or other shady practices, but through billable hours. The premium law firms place on time sheets that fill a mandatory number of hours billed to clients is what eventually could make those lawyers pad a figure here and there, promising they would pay it back to the client in the coming weeks by working at no charge. “Then, after a while, you will stop paying back those little loans. You will convince yourself that you did such good work, your client should pay a bit more for it.” Eventually Schiltz told his students, quick decisions made every day will “reflect a set of values that embodies not what is right or wrong, but what is profitable and what you can get away with.”

Schwartz suggests that one of the keys to turn bad work back into good (and rewarding) work falls to executives and managers to make sure that jobs are organized around incomplete contracts where staff don’t function solely within the boundaries of their job descriptions.


For example, doctors have guidelines to treat or prevent disease, but how they deal with patients is up to them. Teachers have curricula, but reaching individual students is also left to their own discretion. When teachers, for example, are incentivized based on how many students pass a certain standardized test, they will teach for that test. Scores may go up, but learning doesn’t.

The solution isn’t to pad job descriptions with more details or scripts and templates for desired behavior, Schwartz writes, it’s the “nurturing of workplace relationships in which people want to do right” by the people they serve.


About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.