Why We Work, Barry Schwartz - Book Summary

Why we work? point out false assumptions in the modern working world. The book will show you why current management strategies don't really work, as well as offer alternative methods to help you achieve better results.

The book is for:

  • Human resource professionals who care about employee rights;
  • Leaders want to boost employee morale;
  • Senior employees want to understand the whole situation of the working world.


Barry Schwartz is a psychologist and professor of theory and social action at Swarthmore College, USA. He has published more than ten books and over 100 articles in scientific journals. He is also a frequent guest on radio shows and has appeared twice at TED forums.

When work becomes mission

Why do you work? Because you need money to pay for living expenses, because you want to maintain social relationships, or because you want to feel yourself useful in life?

People's attitudes towards work are often divided into three types. With the first type, work is just work, nothing more. They work to make ends meet, buy favorite items or have a small amount of savings, which is just an essential task in their life.  

The second type associates work with a career. They value the opportunity to develop themselves more than the monthly salary. They are even willing to work for free to improve their experience and ability to take responsibility. Obviously, they expect perfectionism at work more than the first group.

Finally, there are people who see work as a mission, the results of which they make a positive change for the world. Work is an indispensable part, also an endless source of inspiration for them.

You will probably find yourself in all three at different stages in your life. But why is there this difference? That is also the question that American psychologist Amy Wrzesniewski and her team are trying to answer. They conduct interviews and research with individuals across a variety of fields and industries to find out what makes their work more than just a mission, but a noble one. .

Healthcare workers are the ones who feel the most satisfied with their jobs. The teaching assistants are also very proud to be able to support the lecturer in transmitting knowledge to future young leaders. In both examples above, people find inspiration in their work when their work makes positive changes in the lives of those around them. So how can your employees themselves find motivation in their work?

Without autonomy, investment and specific tasks, employees will be easily distracted and lose motivation

What makes a business successful? Although there are countless formulas, strategies or secrets to help companies operate effectively, in reality, all of the rules are tied to one prerequisite: how to treat employees, expressed through three basic factor:

The first is autonomy. With greater independence and responsibility, everyone from migrant workers to project leaders will feel more proud of their work. Giving employees the freedom to make some important decisions increases reliability, loyalty, and respect in the work environment.

Next is investment. Today, many companies achieve success by devoting time, resources, and effort to employee skill development efforts. Through competitive training programs, employees feel that their efforts are worthwhile and that they themselves have an important role in the company.

Finally, the mission. The company's goal is not just something that is far away mentioned by CEOs in their speeches, it must be something that is present in the company every day, every hour, through all levels of management, in every effort of the departments. board, and of course through each resulting product.

During periods of inefficiency, companies tend to focus more on human capital investment and assign specific targets instead of improving individual autonomy. However, this only makes the problem more difficult.

For example, when a company faces competitive pressure in the market, it may appoint a few more people to oversee employee workflow to improve performance. But on the contrary, this only makes employees more demoralized, performance continues to decrease, and supervision becomes tighter. A vicious circle!

Let's see why more supervision makes employees more sluggish in the next chapter.

Close supervision and financial incentives do not increase performance

Have you ever had the feeling of being watched right next to you at work? Although we train to be able to work under any pressure, it is not pressure in this case. Supervising employees as if they can't do anything serious on their own only makes them less motivated to try.

Despite such adverse effects, supervision is still the key to many professions today, especially in the education system. Teachers are provided with extremely detailed curriculum, regardless of the teacher's qualifications, ensuring students a "complete" education. No "need" to adjust lesson plans to suit individual students' needs, no "need" to try new and more effective teaching methods, it's no wonder that so many teachers are not satisfied with their work. They may have chosen pedagogy in the hope of a noble mission, but what they do now is merely a mission.

Excessive supervision isn't the only thing that backfires, so are financial incentives. Let's take an example from an Israeli kindergarten. Because so many parents come to pick up their children late after school, the kindergarten has set a fine for the parents who are late to pick up their children. But the results were quite surprising, initially the late pick-up rate was 25% and it increased to 40% after the penalty was introduced. Thanks to the fine, the guilt of parents for being late is significantly reduced.

Financial incentives sound like a good idea, but it can turn social and ethical relationships into purely material money relationships, detracting from the original goal.

Is what we think about human nature true?

Inventions are not limited to physical products, they can also be theoretical ideas and concepts. In Understanding the Nature and Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith lays out economic theories and ideas about how to maximize productivity. One of his most important arguments is that people only work when motivated. Most companies still apply that principle today, obviously money being the most visible motivator.

Don't forget, however, in the previous chapter that we saw the opposite effect of financial incentives. So why do we still think ourselves and those around us are motivated by money?

The main problem is that we are so absorbed in the theories that Adam Smith put forth. Not all theories "invent" human nature properly. We support those arguments simply because they are what we expect of ourselves. Is everything really like that? No, find out in the last chapter.

The concept of “effectiveness” should be redefined

Is it effective to buy a shirt made with child labor? Ethically, of course the answer is no. But from an economic point of view, the question becomes superfluous. We cannot give an exact answer based on a narrow definition of "effective".

Today's economists define efficiency simply as profit. But for a more precise definition, we need to consider many other factors. Output is not only the amount of money earned, but also the satisfaction of customers' trust for the product and the company. Similarly, the input in addition to the physical labor cost must also include the mental cost that they spend.

Expanding this definition gives the business a more sustainable framework, allowing employers to build new workflows that enhance employee satisfaction and productivity. Start with three simple questions: what, how, and when.

What are the employee's mission goals? What is the positive impact that will have?

How can your employees get the job done? Are they closely monitored or are they allowed to make their own decisions?

Finally, if things aren't working, when are you going to change and improve?

Companies often shy away from the third question. The modern economy is constantly changing every day, you can't wait for it to stabilize before you start reforming your system. So the answer to the last question should always be “Right now”!

Main message

Strict supervision and financial incentives only make employees more demoralized and discouraged. It's time for companies to let go of outdated economic theories, focus on developing trust and pride in each employee, making them see their work as a noble mission to give their best. .

Action advice

Create humanistic social incentives instead of financial incentives.