How easy is it to destroy motivation?

Are you familiar with the book “Holes” by Louis Sachar? It's about prison life at Camp Green Lake where American youth prisoners toil under the scorching sun. In the Texas desert, they hack, chop and dig for months with nothing but picks and hand shovels. Meanwhile, the terrain resembles a moonscape, freshly dug holes everywhere with mounds of sand and rubble. Every day each prisoner digs a hole one and a half meters in diameter and depth. For today they are done but tomorrow everyone has to dig another hole. This pattern repeats itself day after day, month after month and year after year.

It is completely useless work without any perspective. Doing work without any meaning is the harshest possible punishment. Having to spend your days in this way is a terror. But unfortunately, hundreds of thousands of people experience the same thing every day. And the punishment is called ... work. Nearly two-thirds of workers don't worry so much about work; they are largely jaded. Every day they drag themselves out of bed to go to work. They no longer get their enjoyment from their work. Employers pay a huge price for this it amounts to billions of dollars. 

Why is it that so many people are trapped in their jobs? Do they work in useless jobs, also called “bull shit jobs. Do they always have to participate in endless meetings. Draw up a report for the umpteenth time that nothing is done with it. Actually, this repetitive work compares well with the hole digging of the American captives. 

To understand how we got here, we have to go back in time. To be exact, when the industrial revolution began. Adam Smith's description of the pin factory, with which he begins The Wealth of Nations in 1776, introduces the fundamental economic concept of the Industrial Revolution. He explains that economic progress is achieved primarily through the application of division of labor. According to him, it is the division of labor that contributes to more efficient production.

In 1911, Frederick Taylor further refined this principle. Armed with a stopwatch, he studied the optimal division of labor. By dividing labor into different tasks, he ensured that work could be done by inexperienced and unskilled workers. The work required less training and experience from the worker. Farm laborers who lived in poverty in the countryside are moving en masse to the cities for a better future. This created a new group of potential workers. Thus, labor became cheaper and cheaper. 

With the advent of the World Wars, the importance of his theory increased. Increasing the war industry was crucial because the country that could produce the most war gear provided itself with a strategic advantage. You had more tanks, planes and cannons than the enemy. This showed that you could win World War II only in the factories and not at the front. After the Americans won, Taylor's scientific management approach became the global standard in economic reconstruction. The downside? Monotonous and simple work with no perspective. 

In the twenty-first century, the West has transitioned to a knowledge-based economy. This transition shows that Taylor's thinking put work in too tight a straitjacket. For example, during the industrial era, it was common practice to motivate workers to pay them by performance. And that's where it pinches. Because knowledge cannot be captured in defined performances. It is also difficult to divide creative knowledge into different micro-tasks. Due to the excessive division of labor, the creative knowledge spirit has escaped from the bottle in most organizations. This leads to powerlessness, meaninglessness and self-alienation among knowledge workers. They have become hole-digging prisoners. That companies nevertheless cling to Frederick Taylor's approach is a missed opportunity! Because honestly, is it about being effective or efficient?

Ruud Olijve

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