Happy talk – Motivation unplugged

"Cos' I'm worth it" - A marketing executive from L'Oreal rocks out at the Marketing Directors Forum in Athens

I was reading the blog of Video Arts the other day on the issue of happiness at work.  It reminded me of the words of honorary punk rockers Rogers, Hammerstein and Captain Sensible, “Happy talk”.  Yes, it’s nice to be happy at work, but that’s only half the story.  We looked at the blues and motivation previously.  The Smiths’ classic “Heaven knows I’m miserable now” is the mantra for people stuck in jobs that don’t fit their skills, attitudes, inner or outer desires.  Let’s check out the dark side of the motivational equation:

What then are the reasons to be cheerful at work?  Certainly NOT because the 360 degree appraisal system has been put online in full colour,  because the team has won a set of fake plastic palm trees inscribed with the company mission statement, or when the HR department places a ‘People are our greatest asset’ plaque in every toilet cubicle.

It may be slightly quaint or even old fashioned to say this, but whatever happened to good old job design, as described by Hackman and Oldham?  They pointed out that people work well when they have well designed jobs.  These include some good old fashioned but not out of date factors:

  • Skill variety – using an appropriate variety of skills.
  • Task identity – being able to see the whole task.
  • Task significance – the extent to which people identify with the task and its importance to something wider.
  • Autonomy – giving some discretion over the way in which work is done.
  • Feedback – gaining an idea of how well people convert effort into performance.

In practical terms, many of the tried and tested methods of improving job design at work still have value.  For example:   vary work where possible to encourage skill variety;  assign work as a whole unit to enhance task significance;  delegate tasks to their lowest possible level to create autonomy and responsibility;   connect people to the impact of their work through feedback.  Some of the world’s best workplaces such as Prêt à Manger use these principles intuitively as they are common sense, although they are not commonly applied.  Others have made significant improvements by just following them as a conscious protocol, such as I have observed in work at The Royal College of Physicians.

My latest book Punk Rock People Management offers us three chords on motivation:

  • Design work according to Hackman and Oldham’s principles.
  • Eliminate pointless tasks from the daily grind that add no customer / stakeholder value.
  • Remember that reasons to be cheerful include: being listened to; doing things that count; understanding why they matter; being part of something; not having to do pointless tasks;  getting meaningful feedback on what you do and so on.

‘Punk Rock People Management – A no-nonsense guide to hiring, inspiring and firing staff’ is available for purchase of as a FREE download via the Punk Rock People Management webpage.  If you like this extract from the book, you will also LOVE my other book ‘Sex, Leadership and Rock’n’Roll’, acclaimed by Tom Peters, the daddy of them all.  Contact us to book your next conference keynote based on our heady mixture of business leadership and music.  Just back from Greece, and shortly appearing in Romania, South Africa and Slough – hardly a Rock’n’Roll schedule I admit! 🙂  Read a review by clicking on the picture:

Good companions

I leave not with Happy Talk by Captain Sensible, but with his rather more thoughtful anti-war / eco warrior song “Glad it’s all over” – The Captain ‘extinguished me’ with a fire hydrant at the Marquee during a Doctors of Madness gig, for which I am eternally grateful.


13 responses to “Happy talk – Motivation unplugged

  1. Great post, I love ‘Happy Talk’ Captain Sensible was my childhood favourite! (Showing my age now! lol) some great points about motivating employees – tweeted 😉


    • Hello Sharon,

      Me too showing my age – I used to wear a red beret frequently and followed the Damned – I was hosed down by the Captain at the Marquee once at a Doctors of Madness gig – water – electricity – they don’t mix, but I am still alive. Thanks for your post here are tweet – mucho gracias



  2. From Linkedin

    Graham Brown • People will make an effort over and beyond if they think there will be some reward for doing it. I’m not talking about a financial reward necessarily, sometimes just recognition of the effort is enough. Several companies I have worked for have written into the contract that you will be expected to work overtime with no reward and I think this is counter productive. Make the job interesting and varied, make the employees feel they are involved and see the rewards from the success of the company and accept that some people are just 9 to 5 type people. That should make staff more likely to work that extra few hours!

    Karin Hermans • What makes people work harder for longer is IMHO the same as the trigger for “what drives us” – because it is not just related to paid for work.
    last year I wrote this blog post as review on Dan Pink’s great book on the very subject:

    Great quote from it: “”We’re born to be players, not pawns. We’re meant to be autonomous individuals, not individual automatons.”

    Peter Cook • Thank you Karin for the link – I have also commented on Pink’s work in Punk Rock HR – free copy available via http://www.academy-of-rock.co.uk/Punk-Rock-HR or via Paul Andrews’ Business Bunker programme.

    Thanks also Graham – interesting work drives more commitment – the definition of interesting is often purely personal and the smart boss finds out what that is and designs it in.

    I shall post both your comments to the blog – thanks for taking the time to add these helpful comments here. Much common sense is not commonly applied at work 🙂



  3. And still more comments from Linkedin

    Jennifer Bowden • There are a number of reasons why people contribute harder for longer and I would suggest that most of the reasons will be driven from within. This encourages the exta effort that is required to work at this level and underlines that fact that people don’t make us do anything we have to choose to do it. However, there are always contributing factors such as influence and peer group pressure!

    Peter Cook • Hello Jennifer,

    First off – nice to see you here

    Secondly – thanks for your post – it chimes in nicely with the words of Prof Adrian Furnham who also spoke at the HR conference in Athens the other day. The two words ‘thank you’, authentically given, make all the difference. As we both know, we gave incredible amounts of free time for free to the CIPD over many years. I left when these two words were taken for granted by Wimbledon. I guess that also serves to demonstrate that ‘little things matter’. The ILM seems to have learnt this simple lesson that the bigger organisations seem to forget.

    Hope you are well – it has been a long time since we met etc. Have I sent you a free copy of ‘Punk Rock HR’ yet?

    I shall post your comments to the blog if that is OK. Thanks for taking the time to check in here.



  4. Hi Peter,

    What a great song – about time it was covered on X-Factor!

    Regarding working harder for longer – I’ve found I’m quite sensitive to the attitudes of those around me (maybe too sensitive?). Peer pressure / team spirit have always been an influence on me to work harder. That and the fear of failing. By the same token I’ve also found it demoralising to be working in of a group of demotivated and lazy people and I have a tendency to get dragged down.

    I probably just need to ‘man up’ a bit. Or listen to more music!



    • Hello Mark,

      Ah the double edged sword of emotional intelligence / EQ – for me, it’s vital to be open and responsive to other people’s views, but, of course life is much easier if you have a very hard shell. But I do think the advantages of paying attention to your environment outweigh the artificial security that comes from having a deficit on inter and intra personal intelligences! 🙂

      As you point out, the downside is that other people’s laziness can be a downer.

      I know the feeling well, but I’m not about to ‘man up’ – listening to more music is always on the list!

      Thanks for your comment.



  5. More from Linkedin:

    hannu melarti • Peter, I agree with everything you say in your posting. However, achieving what you recommend will not just require that we start doing certain things differently; it will take an entirely new way of thinking. Most industries and companies are still dominated by the ideas and organizational structures promoted by Frederick Taylor some one hundred years ago: “one type of man is needed to plan ahead and an entirely different type to execute the work…. the managers assume, for instance, the burden of gathering together all the traditional knowledge which in the past has been possessed by the workmen and then of classifying, tabulating, and reducing this knowledge to rules, laws, and formulae which are immensely helpful to the workmen in doing their daily work” (The Principles of Scientific Management, 1911). The idea was that the less thinking, the smaller the risk of screw-ups. Taylor’s influence is still today very visible, for instance, in the job descriptions that most of us have been given which often covers several pages and all end with the phrase “and any other tasks assigned to you by your supervisor”. As long as the dominating management culture considers me a walking time-bomb in need of tight management-control rather than a valuable independent thinking contributor whose potential needs to be maximized, most changes on the procedural level will remain hollow artificial flavors of the month with very little influence on my motivation.

    Peter Cook • Hello Hannu – I see both realities at play – the Taylorist / Fordist type approaches and the more enlightened approach in some of the organisations I work for. I do think that it takes greater courage to work in the way that the blog discusses and this is indeed hard. I also think it is timely for companies that now have Gen Y + employees etc.


  6. Still more from Linkedin:

    Eric Sutherland • Hi Peter
    An interesting question with an obvious answer. People put in the extra effort when they are enjoying what they are doing and feel that they are contributing to a bigger purpose.

    Key to this is getting into flow and working to your strengths.

    When you hamer a square peg into a round hole it feels very uncomfortable. It may fill the gap for a while, but it just wants to get out of the round hole and into one that fits better. so they do the minmum they have to until an opportunity comes along to “jump ship”.

    Peter Cook • Is the answer really that obvious Eric? If it were everyone would be in jobs that led them to personal nirvana etc. Speaking personally, I identify wholly with your views as, I made the choice to do what I do and therefore I fit into the round hole etc. But that is an uncommon result for many people at work?

    Peter Cook • p.s. I’d also say it was obvious – in the words of the ‘Wham’ T-Shirt ‘Choose Life’, but I do rather think I am the exception more than the rule.

    David Herbert • I was told on a ILM Quality course (some years ago) that:

    * An employer only pays for your time and your skills.

    * Commitment, enthusiasm and loyalty have to be earned (continuously)

    Unfortunately, it often seems that managers in many companies regard it as a basic right that their employees must continuously ‘go that extra mile’ to compensate for very poor planning and a lack of foresight.

    The reports on the amount of unpaid overtime that is worked in the UK provide ample evidence of this.

    When I look for a position in a new company I always ask about the policy for overtime (since this is indicative of whether the management value their employees and can manage their projects and programmes).

    Peter Cook • Thank you for your comment David.

    The assumption that ‘extra’ is a given is a sign of the times in recession is indeed a dangerous one.


  7. And still more comments from Linkedin:

    Marv Patterson • This is an excellent question, and very relevant to a company’s level of success as an innovative force in the world. Interestingly, the answer is directly related to the factors that cause a person to burn out and not be able to work at all. If you turn these factors on their heads, you create conditions in which people will work like crazy for long hours and love it.

    A graphic from my most recent book, “Build an Industry Hot Rod” makes this clear. The graphic can be downloaded from the URL below:


    Using the graphic as a reference, conditions for burnout exist at the lower left corner of a three-dimensional cube. The dimensions represent conditions in the workplace and are 1) Energy level, 2) Feelings of effectiveness, and 3) Level of involvement. Burnout is characterized by exhaustion, feeling ineffective at work, and a detached or cynical state of mind.

    At the opposite end of an internal diagonal through the cube is a state I have labelled “Fully engaged” that represents the working conditions in a highly effective and innovative enterprise. The executive leaders in this company have a fire in their belly to build something, to change the world. They set exciting, seemingly impossible goals that enlist full commitment from innovation professionals, and get them enthusiastically involved.

    Next, the management style in the firm is such that people are given interesting and exciting objectives to achieve AND the freedom to exercise their full professional judgment and skill in picking the approach and making the right things happen. Every day these people go home feeling good about what they have accomplished.

    Finally, workloads are managed so that people work hard but get the support and replenishment they need. Work teams are staffed with an abundance of the required talent so that workloads are humanely distributed. Individuals thus remain energized and always ready to do their best.

    When these conditions prevail people have so much fun at work you sometimes have to chase them out with a stick on Friday night. Then they are back early Monday ready to hit the ground running again.

    A company that achieves these working conditions gets a great deal more from its employees than other firms can.


  8. More from Linkedin:

    Stephanie McGovern • I think there are a lot of factors, inspiring vision, clear roles and processes, sense that I can make a difference, encouragement to use my unique strengths, feedback etc. But my latest thinking is about are the conditions right to experience Flow State (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi)? Is there enough challenge (otherwise people get bored) Is there enough ability and skill development to do the job (otherwise people get overly stressed and shut down) Flow State is a great internal motivator. It lights up the regions of the brain similar to cocaine (I only know this from research, not personal experience) so it is like a natural high. Can’t think of anything more motivating in the long term than that! The difficulty of course is how do you help sustain the balance of skill and challenge for individuals over the long haul. But I find it a useful framework as I work with leaders about how to motivate people.

    Peter Cook • Aaaah Flow – now we are talking Stephanie. I am a musician and composer for part of my life and concur completely with your views and the importance of mastery / flow / unconscious competence.

    I’m not sure the majority of people experience this doing jobs that they did not choose to be in or ones that don’t have the design factors you mention embedded into them 😦

    On the subject of flow, you may enjoy a post I wrote a while back on personal mastery via the example of my friend Bill Nelson, founder of Pop Art Group Be-Bop Deluxe and admired my Mc Cartney, May, Kate Bush and many others – see https://humandynamics.wordpress.com/2011/03/07/masters-of-personal-reinvention-%E2%80%93-bill-nelson/ and https://humandynamics.wordpress.com/2011/08/27/bill-nelson-integrity-and-creativity-in-a-bottle/



  9. From Linkedin

    Mauro Biefeni • All these models and research are great…but I think they, like most things, are at best a good basis for logical thinking.

    What everyone wants in order to feel fulfilled in their job is the same thing they want from anything in their personal life. A feeling of appreciation for their efforts. A feeling that they are more than just a cog in the wheel, but rather are a vital part of a smooth running system. If they are not getting that desire met, they do the same things they do in real life depending on the personality:

    Some personalities do their best to work as little as possible in the relationship in hopes that it will deteriorate to the point where there is no choice but to move on.

    Some personalities will try real hard to get the ‘love’ they are lacking, the appreciation they feel they deserve and the feeling that they are noticed. This can only last so long before once again the relationship becomes destructive and dissolves.

    Other personalities will not put up with it and will let it be known that this is not right and it cannot go on this way. This is the best case as aat least the problem is known and things can be done to either correct it, or terminate the relationship before things get worse.

    So, the best companies in the world are the ones who have figured this out and know how to reward their employees so greatly that they would be devastated to lose their position…not just with great pay, benefits and retirement plans, but with an environment they would not want to lose. They are given meaningful and descriptive objectives and time lines that are reasonable. They are given the information they need to do their job and are not afraid to ask for more information when required. They are as comfortable in their job as they are in hanging out with friends, and wanting to be part of the team and keeping up with the work their friends are doing so as not to be the drag of the effort.

    As a developer & consultant, I have seen a variety of workplaces…never a super great environment yet, but some lower ends of the spectrum involved project managers who who use terms like ‘It’s not rocket science!’ when a question was asked of them as though to suggest they were so much more informed of the topic, when in reality they simply were not great at communicating the requirements or expectations or giving the tools required. This is quite common and is the worst possible type of manager as it does many things: removes the feeling of appreciation, suggests the receiver of the comment is below the giver in terms of intelligence and simply creates a hostile environment where the employee is no longer interested in giving to the company.

    Why is Facebook so popular? Because users can receive that instant gratification of seeing Thumbs Up for their posts (Success!). They can get comments on the funny picture they posted saying how funny it is (success!). They can see their friends list count grow, even if they don’t rally know most of them (Success!). Farmville…crops growing, farm doing well (Success!). The theory and formula here is very simple, though it obviously has to be modified for the workplace and also for those employees who really are just a drag to a company. Make sure your employees are cohesive as a group. Camaraderie will improve performance. If someone does not fit with that group and you see problems, move the to another department, see how it goes, and worst case, they have to go. Make sure even small successes have some degree of acknowledgement, and big successes even more so. Make sure that nobody in a management position is allowed to talk down to anybody. Fire an employee if needed, but never let anyone see them being berated, and lose any managers who think that is the way to do things.

    It amazes me that the obvious things about human behavior are often ignored when trying to create a happy workforce….but that is just my opinion on the matter….

    Peter Cook • WOW, there’s a lot here and it should cause great debate in the forum – thanks for posting this. I’m just off out in a minute, but a couple of instant reflections:

    I think you are right on the money re the social aspect of work for many people – “It’s a love thang”. If you recognise that alongside your reward strategy, you are halfway there. People go to work for a whole stack of reasons outside the job.

    And you bring up the like button / FB 🙂 Personally, I’m not a virtual farmer (Farmville) so I will resist being drawn on that lol but you are right, social media work for some because they fill some social need that is not satisfied in other ways.

    As for logic, it’s the first time in my life that I’ve ever heard someone mention logic in the same sentence as Captain Sensible or Morrissey – :-))))) But I think I understand the point you are making lol


  10. More from Linkedin

    Kevin Hewitson • Being within your “zone” or “element”, when you are time stands still, you have that single focus. Scott Halford talks of being a “short cut” and Sir Ken Robinson talks of how finding your passion changes everything in his book The Element. So it is different things for different people.

    Here is to finding your element!

    Ah, Ken Robinson Kevin… Ken invited me to lunch at Warwick about 9 years ago – possibly the longest distance lunch I have ever had at a round trip of 10 hours – phew !

    He had bought my 1st book ‘Best Practice Creativity’ and had just written ‘All Our Futures’ which I assume you have read. Over lunch he proposed a joint venture to write the book that became ‘Sex, Leadership and Rock’n’Roll’ but I had already written the book draft so I turned him down. – oops – that sounds like a mistake in hindsight! :-)))

    However, Ken shortly moved to the US to work for the Getty Institute so it may have been difficult to collaborate in practice, but I often wondered what would have happened if I had said yes. The rest is history. A client told me that he went to school with Paul Mc Cartney in Greece last week. Small world etc.

    He was indeed in his element or the state of flow / mastery as you say.



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