Rich pickings do not always mean contentment

‘Our content is our best having’


A recent train journey turned out to be unusually pleasurable. Certainly the basics were met - safety, punctuality, amenity and so on; the difference was in the human touch provided by Kathleen, the stewardess. She was diligent to a fault, cheerful, careful of the customers, and above all keen. Her every move showed it. Passengers warmed to her and the other staff seemed lifted by her enthusiasm. She clearly liked her job and set out to do it as well as she could. She received no extra payment and had no incentive other than her own commitment to the job. Her demeanour breathed contentment.

Happily, role models such as Kathleen Waters can be met in any workplace and their presence belies the common presumption in business circles that people will only do their job well if promised extra money for doing so.

Consider the nature of the contract between employee and employer. Whether formally expressed in writing or not, the understanding must always be that the employee performs an appointed role or duties to the best of his or her ability. Best efforts are required, not token or perfunctory gestures towards industry. The implied requirement is a sense of commitment and wholehearted endeavour. It is a state of mind.

All very well says the sceptic, but human appetite, being what it is, requires more tangible satisfaction. If employees are to give of their best, their resolve will have to be strengthened by further incentives. Business needs bonuses. Thus in 2013-14 such payments to UK workers totalled £39 billion. This huge amount was still a smallish percentage of total earnings but it raises a larger question about remuneration policy in the workplace. Larger, because the issue is regarded by many as a symptom of a broken system and the failure of shareholder democracy.

Bonuses are not an entitlement. As discretionary payments, they have to be linked to the achievement of specified targets or standards of performance so that the quantum of extra effort and business benefit can be measured. The risk is that the supplementary targets and standards become the focus of employees’ attention instead of dutiful performance of the job requirements looked at as a whole. Bowing to human frailty serves only to obscure the true job ingredients that make for an enduring sense of worth and fulfilment. Only that sense can ensure commitment to the work in hand.

Some basic misconceptions underlie remuneration policy as it stands. Company leaders often appear to think that their first responsibility is to maximize shareholder returns and to push share prices higher by any means available. Achievement of those objectives commonly supplies one criterion of success upon which the shaky edifice of the incentives culture rests. At executive level, where bonuses, share awards and other discretionary payments often comprise the bulk of total remuneration, pursuit of longer-term goals is being replaced by a sprint for the Christmas turkey.

Company bosses protest that competition for talent at the executive level requires “competitive market rates to be paid”. As a result of this flight of fancy, chief executives’ total remuneration in some big companies routinely totals up to 200 times that of the average employee. Nobody in the boardroom seems to mind.

When it comes to the motives of employees, the FT’s splendid Lucy Kellaway has for many years fingered silly thinking in business life. Recently (FT May 5th) her explorations unearthed a gem. An informal office survey revealed that hardly any of her colleagues had left the paper for money reasons. Usually they had left because they felt underappreciated. She also suggested that journalists stayed with the FT because they were proud of the paper. Her findings confirm that belief in the worth of what one is doing is a vital ingredient in personal fulfilment. Without it, money doesn’t fill the gap. Our own experience points in the same direction; we have never paid extra work incentives or extravagant executive salaries.

Money matters, of course. Employees want to provide as best they can for themselves and their families and human ambition is a laudable characteristic. But it needs to be channelled constructively. Higher motives get lost if a choking atmosphere of self interest is all that surrounds them. Certainly pay must be adequate, generous even. The evidence is, however, that monetary stimulus fails to guarantee a lasting sense of job fulfilment. One study from Princeton University suggests that up to half of American executives would sacrifice a sizeable chunk of their salary in exchange for the ‘ideal’ job.

Boardroom extravagance in the financial sector has become a sitting target for brickbats. Admittedly much of the press comment over recent months evidences a chase for circulation rather than a search for truth. Nevertheless, if business leaders wish to escape the sniper fire they should address muddled thinking about pay.

Resort to common experience would be a good start. That means recognizing the factors, beyond meeting reasonable living requirements, that truly make for workers’ lasting fulfilment and embracing them in a new culture. Right thinking in business subordinates growth objectives to the satisfaction and appreciation of customers and nurtures among employees a shared and mutually supportive understanding of their worth and place in the enterprise. All concerned must be encouraged to treat each other – customer and colleague – as they would be treated themselves. Financial inducements to individuals related to the achievement of annual targets tend to relegate the proper objectives. When a basis of trust is established among customers and between colleagues, experience shows that attainment of business growth objectives follows.

For those who still wonder, despite the evidence, whether it is realistic to expect people to work contentedly in a job largely for its own sake, a glance at the life of a creative artist may be helpful.

Three miles south of the sound separating the Isle of Skye from Wester Ross there is a secluded, sandy bay. One brilliant spring day, a few friends made their way down to it. Approach from above is protected by a wooded ravine. Scores of primroses, bluebells and anemones colour its banks. Rocks protect one flank of the bay from intruders, a gentle burn protects the other. In between, a few acres of grazing splash green across the foreground. Several miles offshore, the island of Eigg crouches over the Sound of Sleat and draws the eye over the sea in a sweep of quiet beauty. Apart from a deserted croft house there is no mark of human presence. The only sound is a burst of song from chaffinches skitting about some nearby trees and the burn gurgling beneath them. At the centre of the green patch squats a solitary boulder. A dull, metal plate has been fixed to it upon which are engraved these words. “Beneath this stone, the site of Camusfearna, are the ashes of Gavin Maxwell, b. 15th July 1914, d. 7th September 1969”.

Gavin Maxwell often ran short of money, it seems. His books, which enchanted millions, no doubt helped fill the gaps. Yet on that spring day it became gloriously clear that nothing in the world could have moved him to write as he did about his life with his otters, save the joy of recording loveliness itself. People can achieve great things if they believe their work is worth doing of itself. That is the message of a stone that stands alone on the green at Camusfearna. Those who shape corporate life in this country would do well to heed it.

1 June 2014 

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