Jobs, careers and callings – the surprising truth about happiness and motivation at work

Amy Wrzesniewski is a professor of organizational behavior at Yale School of Management. Her main interest is how people find meaning at work which is a fascinating topic and her work has been a huge inspiration to our work here at Woohoo inc. We recently had a chance to talk to her about it and here’s the transcript that reveals some real surprises about what makes us happy and motivated at work.

Read the interview below and learn:

  • Why people who find meaning in their work are happier at work and in life
  • Why monetary rewards can make us less effective at work
  • How external motivators like raises and bonuses kill our internal motivation over time
  • How to help employees find meaning at work

One of the main distinctions that you’ve found in your work is, that there are three ways people find meaning in their work. They can see it as a “job”, as a “career” or a “calling”. That’s a brilliant concept. Could you please explain each of those.

Sure. This is together with many collaborators and co-authors of mine. We’ve for a long time been interested in understanding the nature of the relationship between people and the work they do, with the idea that it isn’t necessarily a property of the job itself, how people think about or connect with their work.

So we’ve developed a measure and have studied people in lots of different kinds of occupations and have found that people, regardless of occupation, can see the work that they do as a “job” where the focus is primarily financial, where you get a paycheck out and the work is primarily about the economic exchange with the organization more than about the work itself.

Or people can see the work that they do more as a “career” where the focus is on advancement within that occupation or within that field, within the same organization or across different organizations over time. For people who have a stronger career orientation, their focus is on advancement and moving forward, with the accompanying increases in prestige and power and so on that come with that.

The last orientation we study is the “calling” orientation, where people are working not for career advancement or for financial gain, but instead for the fulfilment or the meaning that the work itself brings to the individual. People who see their work more as a calling see the work as an end in itself that is deeply fulfilling and regardless of the kind of work they’re doing, they tend to see the work as having a societal benefit.

That is absolutely fascinating. How common is each of these orientations. How many people fall into each of these three buckets?

We looked across wide swaths of different occupations and what we find is about a third, a third, and a third of people, one of these is strongest for them.

Interestingly, if someone strongly identifies with one, they won’t strongly endorse the others. We know this both from a sort of vignette kind of paragraph measure that we use but also lots of single item measures that we use to study this.

If you look in, say, caring professions where you would imagine that there are more people who see the work as a calling, you do find that. The propensity to have a calling is stronger there, but interestingly, it isn’t necessarily universal. People who are engaging very much in work that we might idealize in our culture to be callings, may very well see that work as just a job or as a way to advance to become, say, head of the department or something like this.

Is there a difference between low wage and high wage jobs or low education/high education? There might be a perception that you might find more people with a calling orientation among doctors or engineers and maybe less so among fast food employees serving burgers.

It’s a great question. What we find generally is that people who have stronger calling orientation tend to have higher incomes and tend to be more educated.

However, if you think about the kind of work that people go into, if you are coming from a level of income or a level of the education and educational opportunities that would allow you to pursue something that you find to be more meaningful, you would expect generally that people in that group would be more likely to have found something that they feel is a calling.

What’s interesting to me, very interesting in my opinion, is that even when you look at jobs that are at the lower end of the educational, income or status hierarchy, you also find people who see their work as a calling, just as you find people at the top of the education and income hierarchy who see their work as just a job.

And they look more similar to each other on the basis of their approach to the work they do, because that predicts how happy they are in their work, how satisfied they are with their work, and how satisfied they are with their lives.

So even across the income and education spectrum, identification with these orientations and the pattern of relationships between the orientation and people’s well-being is the same regardless.

So you don’t need a university degree or a CEO title to find this calling orientation.

No. In fact, people we’ve studied who are doing groundskeeping work, laborers, people doing janitorial work -  again work that in society we tend to view as being perhaps not necessarily as meaningful – can be experienced in incredibly meaningful ways and seen as a calling by people who are doing that work. Just as you also see people who do that work who see it as just a job or who see it as a career where they want to move up and say manage people who do this kind of work.

It’s not the province of the work itself it really is a function of the relationship between the person and the work that they’re doing.

Interesting. That means that it is accessible to most people. Do you have any great examples? Have you met any people in, which on the face of it are low status jobs, but who had this calling orientation?

Yes. You know, people who work as trash collectors, who collect the garbage in the town in which they work, who experience their work as being critically important to society, who feel that every day they are beautifying the world by removing the things that we don’t need and taking them away and who feel that this again this work is something that the entire region couldn’t function without it, which is true. And it’s work that gets them outside, they’re in touch with people who live in the town, they’re in touch with nature, and see the work in very positive terms. And certainly much more positive terms than people who study work from the perspective of the design of the job would have expected.

Same thing in a study that I did with colleagues of mine, looking at people who clean hospital rooms for their job. That involves a lot of dealing with cleaning products and seeing pain and suffering since you’re in a medical environment. Again, there were people who saw the work very much as a job. It’s a way to get benefits, make a paycheck, and so on. But there were also people who saw that work as a way to fulfil a calling, where they could play a role in the lives of the people who were in the hospital. They’re doing the same kinds of duties, they have the same kinds of job descriptions, but they redefine it in terms of how they think about what the work is, why it is there, and what it is they’re doing, in very different ways, that again is reflected in a much deeper enjoyment of the work and sense of importance of the work to other people.

Is it fair to say that people with the calling orientation generally are happier in their jobs?

Yes. People who have a calling orientation, regardless of the kind of work they’re doing, have a significantly higher job satisfaction and also significantly higher life satisfaction.

It’s not, again, a province of what the work is or what the job is, it’s how the person is relating to that work, how they think about what it is they’re doing there.

And what about the other two groups? Who is the least happy?

You know it’s an interesting question. When we had originally begun to study this question, we had thought that the job orientation would perhaps be the least happy, because there’s less of their identity invested in the work, because it’s simply more of a financial exchange than anything else.What we find, to my surprise, is that people who see the work as a job or a career are equally less satisfied with the work and are equally less satisfied with their lives.

In the research I have done, one of the things that I wonder about is, in the job orientation, there’s a focus on the instrumental; it’s a means to an instrumental end. In a career orientation, there’s also an instrumental end. It’s just what that end is, it’s different. It’s about advancing, it’s about increasing your status and so on.

My sense is that they’re more similar than we might think. When it’s focused on instrumental ends, or things that are about the self, it seems to carry less meaning for people.

There’s a more recent paper done by Jochen Menges and his colleagues, Grant and others are on this paper as well, that look at people who see the work more as a job, but they’re engaging in this job as a way to give income or pay to their family members. This makes the work much more meaningful to them, again because it’s not so much about the self. That’s been the surprise of this, that job and career are more similar than we might think.

That’s absolutely fascinating. So what are some ways to cultivate his calling orientation? What are some things I can do for myself as an employee somewhere to achieve it? And what can the organization or the manager do for the employees to have that calling to feel that sense of meaning and calling orientation?

It’s a great question and I think it’s a complicated question.

This may be somewhat of a surprising thing for me to say, but there are many people for whom work is not a domain where they are seeking this kind of experience. They have put a lot of their identity, of where they see themselves fulfilling their purpose, outside of the domain of work. So the place to start off with, is to understand, is the employee seeking this kind of meaning in their work?

Many of them are, and are not finding it. I think for them, the best thing for these employees, would be to think about how they might act upon the design of their jobs. In other work I’ve done with with Jane Dutton and Justin Berg and other colleagues, we’ve looked at the practice of “job crafting.” How is it that people in the job they’re in, change elements of the tasks or of the relationships or interactions in a way that brings more of the kinds of things that they find to be useful, that they care about, passions that they feel into the work. I think this can transform the meaning of the work. And it’s very agentic, it’s done by the employee. That’s probably the best path for this within the job you have if it’s not possible to, say, move into a job that feels more like a calling.

For managers, this is somewhat tricky. Job crafting is a bottom-up activity, it’s an employee based activity. So rather than, say, advising managers of organizations to try to design jobs so that they’ll feel like callings, I think the best thing that they can do is create environments where people feel empowered to make changes to the kinds of work they’re doing, while obviously fulfilling their responsibilities to the organization right? You have to keep doing what it is that the organization has hired you to do. But can you approach that in a different way? Can you spend some more time in particular aspects of the tasks that are engaging to you? Can you build relationships in directions that, again, sort of will infuse the work with more meaning?

I think giving people permission to do this, and encouraging them to do this while fulfilling their duties to the organization, can be a very powerful and supportive move that managers and organizations can make.

This reminds me of the huge trend right now in self-managed organizations where you give employees more freedom. In a lot of these organizations, you’re not hired to do a job, you’re hired because you’re a great person with great skills, and then you have to create your own job. That would basically open the door for more of what you’re describing.

Yes, absolutely. I think even in organizations that we’ve studied, where people have a lot of latitude over how it is they’re spending their time and energy, what’s interesting is that over time even when you’ve defined it yourself, as time passes you move into this sort of more crystallized definition of the job. So even though it’s a job design you created, people can end up treating that job design as very static where it’s a set of things they must do and so on.

So even for people who have had the opportunity to design it themselves, we would encourage them to revisit this and think about “okay well how and where could you revisit this, to make it a more optimal way of expressing what it is you care most about, what it is that you find most meaningful, in a way that brings a lot of value to you in terms of the meaning that you’re finding in the work but also a lot of value to the organization. And make it an ongoing process not just a one-off design.

Fascinating. The reality is that even if we do see our work as a calling, we still do it for the money, okay? Unless you’re born to filthy rich parents, you have to work and you’re dependent on the paycheck. So these motivations, to some degree, have to coexist for most of us. You did a study recently on how they affect each other. Could you talk a little about the West Point study?

Yes, absolutely. So together with a number of colleagues, Barry Schwartz, Tom Colditz and others who supported this study, we studied about 10,000 West Point cadets. We followed them for a period of up to 14 years and the first thing we were interested in studying at West Point was what was the nature of their motivation for attending.

It’s a huge undertaking to make this commitment. You’re in a very intensive and rigorous academic environment and also military environment for four years, and following that time you are a commissioned officer for five years. So it’s a nine year commitment that people who are 18 or 19 years old are making.

You might imagine that all of them go because they want to serve their country and it’s about more internal motives about service and so on. But there’s a lot of variance as to why people are there. Some of them are there because it’s a free education that pays a small stipend. Some of them are there because they know that after they’re nine years of service they can leave and they will be likely to be employed and very attractive to organizations where they could have a rewarding career.

If you think about it, people who’ve gone through West Point and have become officers and so on really truly know how to lead. They’ve got a great education. So some of the people who go are there primarily because they know there will be a big career payoff later. So that particular motive we characterize as more of an instrumental motive. We studied them upon their arrival to West Point.

They rated all of these different reasons for why it was they undertook this course of action and we were interested in studying the question of whether one motivations was fine but maybe having two or three different motivations could be even better because then you have more legs to your stool. There are more reasons, perhaps, propping you up for why it is you’re there.

But what we found is something that has gotten also support in economics and psychology. Some people are motivated by internal reasons, things that are more akin to a calling. I’m doing this because it’s an end in itself, in this case, I’m here because I want to be an army officer, so that the aim of the institution and all of these activities is my aim. I’m not doing it for some other outcome that will follow from this – like being hired by fortune 500 companies or making more money later.

So we looked at that internal motive and we also look at this instrumental motive of going to West Point because you hoped to be in a more high-powered career later on. And we found that in every case the stronger the internal motivation of the cadet, the more likely they were to have positive outcomes over time. Those positive outcomes were:

  1. Make it through West Point. There’s a fair amount of attrition, it’s a very difficult institution.
  2. That they would be flagged for early promotion because they were an excellent officer in those first five years of service after they had graduated.
  3. And also that they would stay on and remain in the military after their required service as military officers.

And what’s interesting is multiple motives. For those cadets who who held these internal motives but where that instrumental motive was also apparent, the stronger the instrumental motive was, the poorer the outcomes were for each of these different categories. And so it undermined in essence the positive effect of the internal motivation on whether they made it through West Point, how well they did as army officers, and then how long they stuck it out in the military.

We feel this is really important because what it means is in anything we do, whether it’s being a student, whether it’s our jobs you know anything we do, we may have internal reasons for doing it, but if you do well in it, you will get instrumental rewards. You’ll get pay raises, you’ll get accolades, you’ll get these other kinds of things.

The distinction that we would make is between being pleased that you’re getting these things, versus being motivated by them, so they become the reason why you’re there. Like you said, most of us need to work unless we’re independently wealthy. It’s a given that we must work and we do need to pay attention to salary or the wage rate or whatever it might be. But make sure it doesn’t become your reason for being there. Keep it this secondary thing that you must sort of attend to, but it’s not a motive

We feel the power of internal motivation or the power of a calling orientation can really carry people to a different level of job satisfaction. In the case of West Point it drives performance and excellence as well. I think there’s a hugely important lesson there for companies, because they constantly try to tie performance to rewards.

What your what your study underlines, is that whenever you do that, the instrumental goal will crowd out the internal goal over time and make you focus more on the external motivator – the reward – than on the internal motivation, the calling, on the purpose of what they’re doing, right?

Yes. I think the best advice I could give to organizations would be to pay employees as well as you can. Then move the emphasis from that. The more that organizations narrate for people that the reason they’re there is to be making money, and what they want when things go well is more money, and that it all comes down to, you know, that they’re working there because they have these instrumental goals, the harder it is for someone to sustain in the face of that the feeling why it is they’re there, that has to do with the ethos of doing the work itself or the work as a focus of you know striving for excellence or wanting to accomplish the things that happen naturally as a result of the work, whether that’s teaching students or cleaning a street or cleaning a patient’s room.

If you are removing the focus from that and constantly reminding people that they’re really there because they’re getting money, I think both organizations but also individuals suffer.

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