The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us

August 13, 2015

In the spring of 2009, as the world economy was reeling from a once-in-a-generation crisis and the financial shenanigans that stoked it, a few Harvard Business School students glanced in the mirror and wondered if they were the problem. The people they’d aspired to be—financiers and corporate dealmakers—weren’t, it turned out, heroes in an epic tale, but villains in a darker story. Many of these high-profile businesspeople were the ones who pushed the financial system to the brink. Meanwhile, these young men and women looked among their classmates and saw the seeds of similar behavior. In one survey of MBA students a few years earlier, a whopping 56 percent admitted to cheating regularly.

So a handful of Harvard second-years, fearing that what was once a badge of honor had become three scarlet letters, did what business students are trained to do. They made a plan. Together they fashioned what they called “The MBA Oath”—a Hippocratic oath for business grads in which they pledge their fealty to causes above and beyond the bottom line. It’s not a legal document. It’s a code of conduct. And the conduct it recommends, as well as the very words it uses, leans more toward purpose maximization than profit maximization.

From the first sentence, the oath rings with the sounds of Motivation 3.0:

“As a manager, my purpose is to serve the greater good by bringing people and resources together to create value that no single individual can create alone,” it begins. And on it goes for nearly 500 words. “I will safeguard the interests of my shareholders, co-workers, customers and the society in which we operate,” the oath-takers pledge. “I will strive to create sustainable economic, social and environmental prosperity worldwide.”

These words—“purpose,” “greater good,” “sustainable”—are rarely heard in business school because, after all, that’s not what business school is supposed to be about. Yet students at arguably the world’s most powerful MBA factory thought otherwise. And in just a few weeks, roughly one-quarter of the graduating class had taken the oath and signed the pledge. In launching the effort, Max Anderson, one of the student founders, said: “My hope is that at our 25th reunion our class will not be known for how much money we made or how much money we gave back to the school, but for how the world was a better place as a result of our leadership.” Today, more than 300 institutions—from the London Business School and the Seoul School of Integrated Sciences and Technology to the Thunderbird School of Global Management (which established its own oath of honor in 2006)—have embraced the MBA Oath.

Words matter. And if you listen carefully, you might begin to hear a slightly different—slightly more purpose-oriented—dialect. The strategy guru Gary Hamel says, “The goals of management are usually described in words like ‘efficiency,’ ‘advantage,’ ‘value,’ ‘superiority,’ ‘focus’ and ‘differentiation.’ Important as these objectives are, they lack the power to rouse human hearts.” Business leaders, he says, “must find ways to infuse mundane business activities with deeper, soul-stirring ideals, such as honor, truth, love, justice and beauty.” Humanize what people say, and you may well humanize what they do.

That’s the thinking behind the simple and effective way that Robert B. Reich, former U.S. labor secretary, gauges the health of an organization. He calls it the “pronoun test.” When he visits a workplace, he’ll ask the people employed there some questions about the company. He listens to the substance of their response, of course. But most of all, he listens for the pronouns they use. Do the workers refer to the company as “they”? Or do they describe it in terms of “we”? “They” companies and “we” companies, he says, are very different places.

Finally, consider what is perhaps the most underused word in the modern workplace: why. This three-letter interrogative packs enormous power, as Adam Grant, a University of Pennsylvania psychologist, discovered in a study of call center representatives. Grant obtained permission to talk to people making calls for a university fundraising operation and divided his participants into three groups. One group, each night before they made calls, read brief stories from previous employees about the personal benefits of working in this job—earning money, developing communication skills and so on. The second group also read stories before hitting the phones, but theirs were from people who had received scholarships from the funds raised and who described how the money had improved their lives. The third group was the control group; they worked as they usually did, reading no stories before dialing for dollars. Participants were also told not to discuss what they’d read with the recipients of their calls.

What happened? The people in the group reminded of the personal benefit of working in a call center were no more successful in raising money than those in the control group. But the people in the second group, who read about what their work accomplished, raised more than twice as much money, through twice as many pledges, as the other groups. A brief reminder of the purpose of their work doubled their performance.

In business, we tend to obsess over the “how”—as in “Here’s how to do it.” Yet we rarely discuss the “why”—as in “Here’s why we’re doing it.” But it’s often difficult to do something exceptionally well if we don’t know the reasons we’re doing it in the first place. People at work are thirsting for context, yearning to know that what they do contributes to a larger whole. And a powerful way to provide that context is to spend a little less time telling how and a little more time showing why.

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