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Increase the Burden to Revive Commitment

One of the LeaderPoint staff recently spent two days working in a concession tent at a large, outdoor weekend event. He was one of about two dozen paid volunteers working for a catering company. After two days of work—the first one 12 hours long—he was totally exhausted and aching from being on his feet all day and having to carry and lift boxes in stifling heat and humidity.

This sounds like a job for young people who need some extra money, right? Well, no — not in this case. Most of this volunteer staff doing the work of running the stands, making the food and drink, and collecting the money are middle aged women who have other full-time duties or jobs. And nearly all of them are “regulars” who gladly look forward to working these exhausting, grimy events year after year. They work very hard and do that work well. Why do they do it?

We have written previously about the importance of gaining commitment from people based on their free-will choice as opposed to coercing them into compliance. Intuitively, many believe this in principle but think mundane task work is impossible for people to commit to without some kind of extrinsic incentive. These jobs (e.g., trash collectors, hospital cleaners, and call center reps) just must be done with little hope of satisfaction gained from doing the work, the thinking goes.

One way to help people doing these types of jobs is to inject the work with greater purpose — as we have written about in previous newsletters. But as Daniel Pink writes in Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us, there are two other components of motivation that lead to commitment: autonomy and mastery.1

Working in a concession tent would seem a low-autonomy job. The catering company determines the tents, and has proven systems for what is to be sold and how it is made. There is a whole set of well-established tasks that must be performed (many of them unpleasant, such as disposing of food and trash). Yet, these part-time volunteer crews are still effectively put completely in charge of their food area (e.g., lemonade stand or hot food) and have autonomy to decide how they do the tasks, as there are no scripts and no supervisors watching over them.

In fact, the experienced volunteers do most of the supervising and training. The catering company managers smartly do not dictate technique or how the work is done because these tents must operate as crews that require communication that cannot be scripted, and they require crew members to plug gaps that emerge based on specific situations.

Doing concession work is a low skilled job. In fact, teenagers are able to do the work; it can also be the kind of work teenagers can do mindlessly without committing to doing it really well. Mastery would seem to be an unexciting if not pointless goal especially for part-time volunteers looking to earn some extra money, which all these people were doing.

But as Pink reports in his book, researchers have found that “even in low-autonomy jobs, employees can create new domains for mastery.” Among the concession tent workers, for example, it was clear that many of them viewed their jobs as more than just a set of tasks — they thought of the work as customer service, and understanding how to manage the ebb and flow of concession patrons. As Pink describes, these workers “reframed aspects of their duties [and] they helped make work more playful and more fully their own.” In much the same way, many call center workers see their roles as much more than merely following a script, but as an opportunity to expertly diagnose and solve customer problems.

Other observations of the catering event involving part-time paid volunteer workers and the catering company managers and staff:

  • Company staff mingled with the volunteers. At down times they socialized; at busy times they were all business.

  • Company staff mingled with the volunteers. At down times they socialized; at busy times they were all business.

  • No incentives, including praise, were evident. Every one of the volunteers earned $10 an hour; the workers who had demonstrated ability to perform at high levels and “knew the ropes” often had more responsibility within the crews, and one of them was in charge of lining up the volunteers and placing them. These “high performers” still earned the same as novices working in their first event.
This last point leads to the main take away that should guide managers of high, medium, or low-autonomy work. The catering company who manages the event simply increases the work as these volunteers gain proficiency in handling the tasks under periods of high demand and pressure. In fact, no one can make someone else like the work, especially not by trying to satisfy individual wants and desires, but they can still gain strong commitment as proven through decades of research.

And when managers get that commitment, the only thing that needs to be done is to consistently raise the burdens — not just by increasing the quantity of the work, but also its complexity — thereby growing and developing the people.

1Daniel H. Pink, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us 2009.

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