‘If you want people to do a good job, give them a good job to do’
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There was a single Holy Grail that many of us pursued when I started my career in HR. I can’t divulge how long ago that was but a chap called Sir Galahad was on a similar chase around the same time. We were looking for ways to enrich jobs. Once we had that philosophers' stone for turning dross jobs to gold, we believed we would not have to worry (or, at least, not so much) about external motivators like incentives (which had crippling side-effects) or tedious-to-arrange hygiene benefits like bus transport to work and health insurance, all of which were preventing us from doing more exciting things.
It was Herzberg who set the ball rolling (at least for HR practitioners) with his clarion query: "One More Time: How do You Motivate Employees?"1. It echoed around the HR world and team after team set off on the same pursuit. Working as we were then in India’s latest state-of-the-art automobile plant coming up on the outskirts of Poona (now Pune) we were mightily excited by the productivity and job satisfaction gains made by Volvo, a European automobile manufacturer, through job enrichment.2
The next major step forward in developing the theory was taken by Hackman and Oldham a few years after the Volvo experiment. They critiqued Herzberg (saying "the present conceptual status of the theory must be considered highly uncertain"3) as well as the activation and socio-technical systems theories while providing their own job characteristics model which continues to hold its own in Job Enrichment literature almost half a century later. "At the most general level, five 'core' job dimensions are seen as prompting three psychological states which, in turn, lead to several beneficial personal and work outcomes."3 The 'core' job dimensions identified by them were:
- Skill variety
- Task identity
- Task significance
For a while after the landmark contribution by Hackman and Oldham, there continued to be a flurry of research in universities and experimentation in work environments. Then it all started to lose steam. There was no major theoretical paradigm shift (though Csikszentmihalyi’s 'Flow'4 is a possible exception) or empirical contradiction of the claims the theory made. But it was no longer the center of attention and today you will be hard put to find any substantial progress beyond what had been registered decades ago.
I had the good fortune to meet Richard Hackman a few years before he passed away. I did not have the courage to ask him why job enrichment had faded away even more completely than an old soldier. This, however, did not stop me from trying to tease out the mystery of an extremely promising and powerful concept losing its momentum and from seeking to revive it, albeit in modern garb.
Whatever happened to Herzberg?
A clue to a possible reason for enthusiasm draining away from Job Enrichment is contained in the opening paragraph of the article extolling the gains at Volvo. It says: "For many years companies improved productivity by engineering people out of the production process to the maximum extent possible. The general objective was to eliminate all of the thinking possible and in this way prevent the individual from hampering the production process... This system worked remarkably well for many years."2 The sad fact is that the old system has started working very well again – at least for some organizations. As Paul Mason explains: "From the 1980s onwards, the short-term quarterly profit figure became the stick finance used to beat to death the old corporate business models: companies making too little profit were forced to move jobs offshore, to merge, to attempt monopolistic do-or-die strategies, to fragment their operations into various outsourced departments – and to relentlessly slash wages."5 There was no longer an imperative to get the best out of people by making their jobs attractive. In fact, the imperative became to reduce the permanent headcount and, if monotonous jobs drove people to depart, so much the better.
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It would not be fair to blame only shareholder-worshipping corporate managements for the reversion to the mean on meaningless jobs after the great hopes created by experiments in the '70s. Academic researchers too found an inadequate return on the time they spent on Job Enrichment. Apart from corporate interest and sponsorships drying up, the subject demanded micro-level redesign for each type of operation and family of jobs. Far easier to check the impact of policies (like company newsletters, gender diversity, or better health plans) that could be turned on and off for the entire corporation at the touch of a button.
Wouldn’t it have been nice, in the face of this neglect, if HR had turned up as the knight in shining armor to fight for better jobs? The knight didn’t appear. Primarily because s/he was more than busy herding the very people whose jobs suffered most from soul-deadening repetition and turning them out of the boundaries of the corporation. These knights saw themselves on a holy crusade (sanctioned by the popes of strategy) to retain only sacred core competencies "that represented distinctive capabilities and sources of comparative advantage in the markets in which they competed. Anything that did not directly support those core competencies would be … outsourced to some other party that could provide the necessary activity externally at a lower cost. In essence, the message was, Find your distinctive niche and stick to it. Then shed everything else."6 As David Weil explains, under pressure from institutional shareholders and private equity, corporations were progressively forced to cut away the corporate periphery, then the workplace periphery and finally to reengineer the core operations themselves. In any case, the problem of job enrichment was off HR’s hands and (theoretically) in those of a tier-two manufacturer or sub-contractor who most likely didn’t have an HR department and got along perfectly well without one, thank you. After all, why worry about motivation through job enrichment when the threat of firing was (literally) a kick-ass way to motivate? The HR knight was busy in one more pursuit: rappelling up the cliff of executive compensation (which became possible post-liberalization) to the applause of peers and the plaudits of the CEO, all of whom stood to benefit from the dizzying climb.7 It was too much trouble even to make the few retained jobs exciting; when executives were being paid so much, they couldn’t afford to turn down the most tedious of roles.
The rediscovery of richer work
With so many exciting discoveries in the Behavioural Sciences for us to explore and put on our Action Research agenda, should we really spend time on a seam that seems to have petered out? It is my strong belief that the richest part of the Job Enrichment mine has yet to be excavated. There are at least three strong reasons to resume digging again.
As we saw at the conclusion of the previous section, huge doses of steroidal compensation, covered up motivational malaises for almost a quarter of a century. Well, guess what? The steroid treatment is fast becoming inefficacious. Compensation always needed growing doses to retain its potency and that got its first check with the 2008 recession. The COVID-induced recession is likely to make double-digit annual percentage increases in CTC as much a part of the golden past as Ram’s rule. We clearly need a motivational cure that doesn’t have debilitating side effects and is sustainable in the long term.
What makes the focus on Job Enrichment even more attractive today are the developments in Information Technology since the days when Herzberg and Hackman did their pioneering work. They make the task of job redesign a lot quicker and the attendant autonomy far less risky (because sophisticated information systems can flag and track decisions that have major organizational consequences). The vast increase in the number of people working at repetitive and mind-numbing tasks in the technology and service sectors also makes totally different job families available for enrichment compared to the blue-collar jobs in manufacturing that the first generation of efforts tackled.
The third and most important reason to prioritize Job Enrichment requires us to consider the seven major ways in which working for an organization can create a positive effect on individuals. These are:
- Content of job, freedom in doing it in an integrated fashion, and purpose for which it is to be done.
- Companions at work, whether peers, team members, or seniors.
- Culture of the workgroup and the organization as a whole.
- Capability-building that is available, whether formally or on-the-job.
- Career progression and the security of tenure that is its prerequisite.
- Compensation (as well as other material benefits), rewards, and recognition.
- Comparative status at work as well as in society (as a result of position at work).
The first item on this list has the most direct and immediate impact on intrinsic motivation. The ratio of effort to sustained impact falls off rapidly thereafter. What becomes obvious only after some thought is that, once again, it is only the first item that can be materially improved by an organization for its vast and growing GIG and GIK (GIG workers engaged in knowledge tasks) workforce. It is true compensation and rewards can also be increased but, for reasons we have reviewed, that really isn’t an option anymore. Conference after conference points out the growing proportion of GIG workers and how they must be managed but none (so far as I know) deal with the only way they can be motivated to perform better.
Enriching jobs in the 21st century
Here are three design guides that continue to serve me well even with the new generations of knowledge work as well as the GIG jobs that are coming up. I shall also touch on how each subverts prevalent management shibboleths and, contra wise is thwarted if those are held rigidly.
The first and most fundamental principle for enrichment is to provide scope for Craftsmanship and Creativity on the job. I have devoted an entire column to how Craftsmanship can be enhanced8 and would like to re-emphasize that it is not limited to people who work with physical material like wood, stone, or metal. HR practitioners who think there is no artistry in the coding of software would do well to read 'The Pragmatic Programmer' from cover to cover. "Within the overall structure of a project, there is always room for individuality and craftsmanship. This is particularly true given the current state of software engineering… One hundred years from now, our engineering may seem as archaic as the techniques used by medieval cathedral builders seem to today’s civil engineers, while our craftsmanship will still be honored."9 Csikszentmihalyi points out "that there are few things as entropic as unskilled work done under compulsion… The sooner we realize that the quality of the work experience can be transformed at will, the sooner we can improve this enormously important dimension of life. In theory, any job could be changed to make it more enjoyable by following the prescriptions of the flow model. At present, however, whether work is enjoyable or not ranks quite low among the concerns of those who have the power to influence the nature of a given job… If workers really enjoyed their jobs they would not only benefit personally, but sooner or later they would almost certainly produce more efficiently and reach all the other goals that now take precedence."4 Productivity is extremely important but pursuing it directly, through standardization and output norms that cut no slack for innovation and improvisation, can be hugely self-defeating.
The next wonder ingredient for enrichment is to design jobs such that an individual (or small team) can take ownership for a Complete and Identifiable output Autonomously. This obviously flows against the tide in which large-scale operations have drowned since the time of Frederick Taylor and the mass-production assembly line. Contrast the nameless contribution of an alienated operative with the pride and joy an artist feels in displaying her work to an admiring client. One may not always be able to hand over the totality of a task to an empowered team (though Volvo did) or person but clearly there are design choices that take us in one direction or the other. The Business Partner role in HR, for instance, has the potential to own the totality of the delivered experience (and, hopefully, delight) to an internal customer. But not if we eviscerate it by pulling out one after another delivery (e.g. recruitment, staff administration, and training) to a centralized shared service or an external service provider. Another critical mistake to avoid is the attempt to create enrichment simply by providing variety. Telling someone to carry a 50 kg. bag of cement one day and a 50 kg. bag of grain on the next day is not enrichment. Vertical loading (the boss’s job and the autonomy to decide without upward referral) is what enriches.
The power of purpose
No one reading this journal can be unfamiliar with the response given (supposedly to Sir Christopher Wren) by the third bricklayer, when all were asked the question, "What are you doing?". He replied, "I’m a cathedral builder. I’m building a great cathedral for the glory of God." In a commercial organization, profits are not just important but essential. However, when they become the sole deity, in front of whose altar everything else must be sacrificed, the organization misses the inspiring vision that can elevate the worth and satisfaction of doing even the meanest job necessary for its realization. Admittedly this is a less daunting challenge for military, political and religious leaders. All the same, a few leaders of business enterprises have also created such a sense of purposive calling – and that, after all, is what makes them great leaders and why their teams (not only at the top) find joy in what they do.
The magic that purpose can release need not be confined to the wand waved by the CEO. All business leaders (in fact, all supervisors) can be purpose wizards in their own right. Why not prove the principle in HR? For instance, a CHRO who adopts the mission of enhancing the aggregate happiness of people in the organization10 can charge every HR professional and staffer with a burning zeal to focus on the most direct way to make it happen – by Enriching Jobs! And so, the pursuit of the Holy Grail will be resumed half a century later.
- Frederick Herzberg, One More Time: How do You Motivate Employees? , Harvard Business Review, February 2003.
- Charles H Gibson, Volvo Increases Productivity through Job Enrichment, California Management Review, 1 July 1973.
- J Richard Hackman and Greg R Oldham, Motivation through the design of work: Test of a theory, Organizational Behavior and Human Performance, 1976, 16 : 250-279.
- Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Harper Perennial Modern Classics, July 2008.
- Paul Mason, Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, February 2017.
- David Weil, The Fissured Workplace: Why Work Became So Bad for So Many and What Can Be Done to Improve It, Harvard University Press, May 2017.
- Visty Banaji, But who will guard the guardians?, People Matters, 14 March 2018.
- Visty Banaji, In Praise of Craftsmanship: Past Perfect – Present Imperfect – Future Tense, People Matters, 8 June 2018.
- Andrew Hunt and David Thomas, The Pragmatic Programmer: From Journeyman to Master, Addison-Wesley Professional; 2000.
- Visty Banaji, HR’s business should be happiness raising, People Matters, 24 September 2019.