On motivation

Over on Mnmlist, I came across a great story: I am not a brewer. In it, Leo Babauta talks about the monks of Westvleteren Brewery. He talks about how these monks refuse to scale their operation, despite their popularity as brewers. And then he has a great quote:

Father Abbott said on the occasion of the consecration of their new brewery “But we do not live ‘for’ our brewery. This must be strange for business people and difficult to understand that we do not exploit our commercial assets as much as we can.”

He went on to say “We are no brewers. We are monks. We brew beer to be able to afford being monks.”

We brew beer to be able to afford being monks. That’s beautiful.

But this sort of attitude would not sit well with a lot of business thinkers. Your employees are supposed to be sold out on the mission of the organization. If they don’t have a fire in their belly for the mission, they are the wrong people for the job and need to be set aside.

I think that this is a bad way of thinking. Peoples’ motivations do not need to be the same as the mission of the organization. Their motivations simply need to be congruent with the organization.

Let’s suppose that these monks didn’t have their own brewing operation but were working for someone else’s brewery. If the quality of their beer were still as high as it is, then should the operator of that brewery care that these monks were really interested not in brewing but in the monastic life? The outcome is the same, yes? In fact, it is the desire to be monks that drives the quality of the brewing. Brewing for its own sake doesn’t inspire these monks; being a monk inspires their quality of beer. Interfere with this inspiration, and you damage the beer quality.

Paradoxically, trying to get these monks to love brewing more would probably damage the quality of their brewing.

Why do your people work for you? What motivates them? If you want to get your best from your people, you need to work to align their motivations with the outcomes that you need from them. In some cases, that might mean persuading someone of the worthiness of your organizational goal. But, in many cases, it might be something completely unrelated to your goals. It might be the opportunity to do meaningful work. It might be the possibility to earn enough money to achieve a personal goal, like paying for school or buying a car. It might simply be the ability to provide food and shelter for a family.

If you can sell your people on your organizational goals, then that’s wonderful. But I wonder if there’s more value in showing them how pursuing your goals will help them meet their goals. Help them meet their goals, and they will help you meet yours.


2 responses to “On motivation

  • James Lansberry

    I think you may be over-analyzing this. The vocation of the monks isn’t to be brewers, it’s to be monks. And they make beer. But while your concerns about scaling the brewery are valid, would they make good monks if they weren’t sold out to being monks? (and therefore the beer would be bad as well….)

    Being a part of an organization, and tying your mission to its mission is important, and I think more crucial than you make it out to be. I suppose how one defines congruent missions may play in here, but if the goal of someone’s life is to provide food and shelter for his or her family that’s a pretty sad and unrewarding life, isn’t it?

    I have worked for places where my own values didn’t line up with the corporation’s values or where I didn’t care whether the place I worked succeeded. Those are lonely jobs that I would never go back to. I think congruent may be a least tolerable common denominator for mission, but it shouldn’t be the goal.

    There are lots of places where you can work where once people walk out the door their care for each other and the mission of the organization vanish until the next morning at 9:00. I know lots of people who work in such places and survive. But I don’t know any of them that are excited about the work they do and who love it, and all of them are unhappy.

    There are some good thoughts here but I think you’re overreacting and misapplying the story you’re using. And some of the places you’ve posted about on FB and here would be proof of that (like Zappos).

  • Seth Ben-Ezra

    Hey, James. I had a bunch of thoughts on this, but I think I’ll turn them into a blog post. So, expect to see something in the next couple of weeks. (I know what my production rate currently is. 🙂 )

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