Articles > What makes workers tick

What makes workers tick
Globe & Mail, January 27, 2006

Barbara Moses, Ph.D, is an international speaker, work/life expert, and best-selling author of Dish: Midlife Women Tell the Truth About Work, Relationships, and the Rest of Life.

I recently asked a young human-resources specialist at a large organization what she saw as today's hottest new trend.

"Management development, definitely," she said.

Management development? I was taken aback. And then I realized that, for someone who entered the corporate ranks in the late nineties -- when organizations were cutting core programs as expensive frills -- the idea that her company would actually invest in bringing along its people would indeed appear new and startling.

As they say: What goes around, comes around. And some of today's most striking trends do appear to be old wine in new bottles.

When the economy is surging upward, it's not surprising to see, for example, some people becoming more ambitious in their career goals or organizations suddenly more focused on their efforts to attract, retain and develop staff. At the same time, there are deeper, underlying trends that continue to build in good times and bad.

Some trends here might seem contradictory. But people are complex and the work force is increasingly diverse. More than ever, it contains a multitude of values, expectations and interests, often colliding and shooting off in new directions -- which may be the most powerful trend of all.

Here are some top trends I have spotted that will affect employees in the year ahead and beyond:

Ambition comes out of the closet: For the past six years, I have been collecting data on people's core motivators. Typically about 5 per cent have described themselves as being ambitious.

In the past year, however, I have noted a significant jump in the number of people expressing a desire to be successful in the traditional sense of the word -- to make more money and move ahead in work that offers increasing prestige. In a recent series of workshops with 130 young professionals, about 25 per cent identified this as their primary motivator.

Are these young professionals suddenly more ambitious than older brothers and sisters? Or are they simply adjusting their own expectations to an economy that makes greater career growth now seem possible? The next few years will tell the tale.

The search for meaningful work continues: Ambition may be back on the front burner but for a growing number of people, work is about much more than simply getting ahead. Topping many more people's career wish lists is a desire to do work in tune with their values or that will make a difference in others' lives. This is why more people are looking to work in the public sector, at not-for-profit organizations or go out on their own.

Career consciousness is greater than ever: More and more, workers are taking their career temperature and concerning themselves more about what they need out of their career to make them happy.

As one career counsellor said: "I'm seeing more clients who are passionate about the ideal thing they want to do, which describes who they really are, such as 'I'm really an artist at heart,' or 'I have a great idea for a business, that's my essence.' "They have a clearer sense of what they want to do and are making plans on how to get there."

There is more detachment, especially among the young: "It's just a job," these alienated workers say. They don't see their work as important or identify with the values of their organization. Whether they are full-time employees or contract staff, they have the mentality of a temporary worker.

As one young, private school-educated honours university grad said: "Everyone I know just wants to make as much money as possible doing as little as possible."

Women's issues move higher on the agenda: Last year saw the proliferation of women's networking groups and more articles devoted to women at work issues, including the brouhaha that originated from adman Neil French's comments about why women can never make it to the top. I gave more speeches to women's network groups in the past year than I have throughout my entire career.

Women want to connect to discuss and share their work and life experiences. Witness the spectacular success of a recent Women in Leadership Forum in Calgary organized by three very committed and resourceful women that attracted close to 800 participants and significant sponsorship dollars. (I and some other women had tried to organize a similar conference about five years ago with relatively disappointing results).

Savvy organizations are starting to worry about the growing number of women who feel disaffected and are contemplating leaving.

Mid-life women are exploring their options: Feeling cynical about their corporate employers, more women in mid-career are aggressively evaluating work alternatives.

Some are making moves to create more balance, seeking out life-friendly and values-driven organizations, while others are opting out altogether or moving into self-employment in pursuit of the holy grail of flexibility or being able to do work more in line with their values.

Everyone wants more balance: The desire for more work/life balance is no longer gender or generation-related. Recruiters say that people at all levels, all ages and of both sexes are putting this on the negotiating table as a "must" in their work.

Midlifers make bold moves: A striking number of people at midlife are making moves to take them in radically different career directions. Whether they want one more kick at the can, to leave a legacy or to do work that is more meaningful or gives them more time to pursue other interests, they are willing to leave marquee corporate jobs, take huge salary reductions and undertake significant risk, whether it's by borrowing large sums to go into business for themselves, moving into public-sector or non-profit organizations or pursuing artistic dreams.

The self-employed return to corporate life: Despite the high numbers of people who have struck out on their own, more are learning the hard way that it's not all about flexibility and being able to do your own thing. It's mean out there: the competition is stiff and it's tough to get the attention of and win over clients. A buoyant economy and a talent shortage are enabling them to make a return to corporate life.

Retirement, what retirement? Some career coaches say they are seeing more older workers who, for financial and psychological reasons, want to continue making a contribution. These older workers are less interested in the size of their paycheque as a measure of their self-worth and more interested in flexibility and doing work that engages them emotionally and intellectually. They sell their ability to mentor younger workers.

Overworked managers quit in disgust: The effects of years of cutbacks -- starving staff of resources and investment in their development -- are now becoming more evident. Many talented managers are leaving, knowing they have options and can find work that will give them that kind of support.

Coaching is in: Everyone wants to be a coach, be coached or both. The coaching industry has seen spectacular growth. Restless individuals on a quest for more -- more time, more passion, more joy -- are seeking professional help. Many are becoming evangelists for coaching and finding their passion in coaching others.