Why Do We Work?

David Ransburg
David Ransburg

Many people answer this question quickly by saying one word: pay. While it is true that some people work for financial compensation, not everyone does. In fact, you can probably think of many people you know for whom money is not their primary motivator. Some are mainly driven by being in control while others put a high value on being recognized for their efforts. Others still are primarily driven by the desire to help those in need.

When I say “primarily driven,” I do so because it is quite rare that someone is motivated by a single driver. Typically, employees will have 2-4 motivators that are most important to them, with one in particular being a little more important than those that follow.

A number of researchers have attempted to understand the various motivators that provide purpose for workers, and I’ve found that the list generated by Hogan Assessment Systems to be particularly useful, especially when it comes to family businesses:

  • Recognition: Responsive to attention, approval, and praise
  • Power: Desire for success, accomplishment, status, and control
  • Hedonism: Orientation for fun, pleasure, and enjoyment
  • Altruism: Help others and contribute to society
  • Affiliation: Desire for and enjoyment of social interaction
  • Tradition: Dedication, strong personal beliefs, and obligation
  • Security: Need for predictability, structure, and order
  • Commerce: Interest in money, profits, investment, and business opportunities
  • Aesthetics: Need for self-expression, concern over look, feel, and design of work products
  • Science: Quest for knowledge, research, technology, and data

The above list is important for family businesses for a couple of reasons. First, I’ve found that family businesses are typically very clear about their purpose, and they make great effort to hire employees who share that purpose. If, for example, you are a family business that is primarily driven by helping others (“Altruism”), then being clear about that characteristic will help you to find employees who share that purpose… and will likely do better work as a result.

Second, as a manager in a family business, understanding that your employees will not all be motivated in the same way means that you can tailor your management to fit the specific drivers of each employee. For example, giving an award for “Employee of the Month” may do very little to motivate a worker who doesn’t care about “Recognition,” but that same award will likely mean a lot to someone for whom “Recognition” is at the very top of their list.

What drivers are most important in your family business?


4 thoughts on “Why Do We Work?”

  1. Thank you for adding to the conversation, Daniel. Your comments have spurred a couple of follow up questions:

    1. Do you think it’s always the case that a business-owning family’s primary motivation is to maintain a revenue source for future generations, or might there ever be other more important motivators?

    2. Do you think that motivators for external employees can ever be the same as those for family members?


  2. David,

    The 3 major components of economy, government, corporate business and family business have different sets of motivators. Family business is about a set of family values extending as family wealth to the business, and those outside of the family are there to add value to the goals to maintain a revenue source for future generations. Motivators for external employees are different than those from family members. I am the accountant of a revenue portfolio of about 150 million Euro in small and medium size enterprises, where the basis of service is responsibility. We are 4 family members and 5 non family members in my team. For my wife and I the motivators are based on our Christian core values of self sufficiency to sustain our family and business by working in our business, while we see the motivator for our nephews as growth and proper training to be able to develop their own business. For the non family employees, we look to them as extended family and perceive their motivational needs as a combination of factors of recognition, tradition and security.

  3. Thanks, Rick. Valid point that drivers can change. In the example you provided, would this person’s prime motivation revert back to recognition once they’ve earned sufficient compensation to replace/repair their car… or, do you think that there would be a longer-lasting effect (i.e., even after they earned sufficient compensation to replace/repair their car, they’d have “tasted” the benefits of compensation and begin to see that as a more important motivator)?

  4. I think the other point to note is that the prime motivator of an employee/manager/owner one day may not be the same on any other given day. As an example, we may have someone who is motivated by recogition and content with their compensation until their car breaks down and needs to be replaced. Their primary motivation can quickly switch to commerce (compensation) due to their change in circumstance.

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