Motivation and the Meaning of Work - Page 3


A third approach, born out of sociology rather than psychology, is the work orientations approach. It describes the meaning individuals attach to their work. This meaning predisposes them to act in particular ways with regard to that work. The concept of work orientation was based on an extended set of sociological studies carried out in the 1960s in Britain under the leadership of Goldthorpe and Lockwood (1968). This group of researchers found that need-based theories of motivation were not sufficient to understand and explain the behaviour of the work groups they studied – viz. people do not jump like little machines from ‘one need to the next’, forever striving to reach the highest needs. Rather, their behaviour seemed to be shaped by their work orientation, i.e. what their jobs meant to them and which choices they made when entering their particular employment.

Thus, an employee’s work orientation is shaped in the first instance by their background. People learn, long before they enter the world of work, what ‘work is about’. Whether it is a necessary evil, a means to make money; whether it is potentially a means to find fulfilment and/or do good; whether, indeed, it is part of human make up and defines our very humanity; whether it is our God-given duty to work. Based on such attributed meanings, we ‘enact’ particular behaviours at the work place. Whether we seek promotion or rather stay with the group we like and know (group affiliation), whether we strive for the forever bigger pay package, whether we revel in interesting work which broadens our understanding and enables us to ‘grow’ as a person; whether we seek to do social good through our work, is then no longer the consequence of internal needs, which ‘drive’ our actions, but the result of processes of learning and socialisation.

In some regards, this is ‘bad news’ for a manager, because within the thinking of the work orientation school, workplace behaviour is shaped long before the worker or employee enters the workforce. Thus, it is difficult to change. However, work orientations are dynamic. They change over time and the ‘initial’ orientation brought to work is subject to renegotiation and change. Identifying such opportunities for change, leading and shaping the process of negotiation and establishing the agendas for change is indeed a prime task of management. Detaching oneself - at least temporarily - from the influence of content theories of motivation might enable managers to ask these questions away from old fashioned debates about whether people generally ‘go to work mainly for the money’ or seek employment for other reasons. I always found this kind of debate of little value and quite simplistic. Reframing questions about ‘which need do we have to address now in order to motivate this employee?’ to ‘what does work mean to her/him?’, ‘is this meaning changing’ and ‘what does this imply for the ‘give and take’ relationship s/he has with this organisation’ is a more process-oriented approach to understanding and shaping the realities of workplaces.


Motivation as managerial action is to influence people’s behaviour at work, so they perform as required in order to achieve organisational goals. Frequently, this task is framed within the terminology of ‘needs’ and ‘drives’. These are treated as inborn factors, which determine human behaviour at the workplace. I have tried to provide a brief introduction into alternative modes of framing our understanding of what shapes human behaviour and why. Central to this alternative is the notion of work orientation (the meaning of work) together with a more process-oriented understanding of motivation. The advantage this conceptual framing brings is that it moves our thinking away from deterministic and simplistic accounts, while simultaneously drawing attention to the process and changes which can occur in the position of work in the overall life projects of employees – and managers. While it is of course not always practical, ethical and possible to know about such changes in the work orientations of ‘all staff’, developing a sense of awareness of when such changes might occur or when changes in the structure of the work organisation might violate existing expectancies, values and meanings attached to work will equip managers with a more useful conceptual framework to understand and shape the ‘motivation’ of their employees.

To return to Mr Whittaker’s story. I can make sense of it framing it within the work orientation approach. It seems that Mr Whittaker has a strong work ethic, in which work signifies much more than a means to an end. Work is deeply meaningful to Mr Whittaker as a way of ‘serving’. It is a central life activity without which his identity as a particular human being would not hold. Thus, understanding Mr Whittaker’s behaviour and decisions makes sense to me within the terminology and concepts of the process-oriented work orientation approach. It’ll make less sense when analysed in the language of ‘needs’ and ‘hierarchies’.


Adams, J.S. (1965) Inequity and social exchange, in: Berkowith, L (ed) Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 2, pp. 2267 – 99, New York: Academic Press.

Goldthorpe, J.H., Lockwood, D., Bechhofer, F. and Platt, J. (1968) The Affluent Worker: Attitudes and Behaviour Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Herzberg, F. (1974) Work and the Nature of Man. Granada Publishing.

Maslow, A. (1943) A theory of human motivation Psychological Review, 50: 37 – 96.

Vroom (1964) Work and Motivation New York: John Wiley


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