Status quo, way to go

I think that motivational business books are a bit of a guilty pleasure for executives – they are fully of ambiguous, high-level, feel-good concepts and witticisms, yet they don’t carry the loser stigma of self-help literature.

So I read fishtales.jpgFISH! Tales: Real Life Stories to Help You Transform Your Workplace and Your Life. It is a well-written, charming book written in the style of Reader’s Digest; four workplace testimonials are separated by “inspirational” one paragraph blurbs. Their concept of achieving satisfaction at work is to be like the fishmongers of Seattle’s Pike Place Market: loosen up and be positive. Then, as the book says, making money and winning customers will come naturally.

Personally, I have been at the Pike Place tourist trap, and while the fish throwing ritual was amusing to watch, I did not experience a joyous epiphany like FISH! authors did (as their DVD movie trailer attests). Then again, the whole FISH! philosophy is all about state of mind – you can either choose to be miserable and inert, or happy and adaptable.

So it all boils down to intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation – you can essentially bribe employees with more salaries to stay at their jobs, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be more satisfied with their jobs. So FISH! suggests that managers cut some slack, and try to make their employees understand they’re here by choice, not by force.

But will it really work?

The major issue (and everyone knows this) is that there’s nothing management won’t do to save a buck. They don’t really give a crap about their employees’ wellbeing. Let me be more specific: a company will give a crap up to a certain point – that point being a potentially catastrophic degradation in work performance. However, if, say, removing the water cooler will save them $200 a year, they’ll do it. It may make you slightly less happy, but happiness cannot be quantified – but money can. And managers are awarded for meeting budgets, not for making their workers content.

Eventually, things start slipping toward a Dilbert dystopia, an the kneejerk reaction is to generate more corporate rules, or increase micromanagement. Maybe a work quality improvement initiative will be started; there’s a pep rally, posters are put up, everyone gets a coffee mug or keychain with the Inspirational Slogan du jour, and then everything simply continues on just like before.

Take one of the motivational programs I was involved in a few years ago. If it was deemed that you went beyond the call of duty, you got a pack of Tic-tacs. However, you may still be stuck in a dead-end monotonous job. Rather than improving the quality of your work, you are probably now paranoid about the quality of your breath. Curiously-strong breath mints don’t retain employees.