November 1, 2009
So where do you rank: higher than Barack Obama, but lower than Pat Kenny? Lower than a prison officer, but higher than a bank official?
Few subjects are capable of inspiring so much private brooding or so little public discussion as the thorny question of what you earn. It is the last remaining taboo for a very good reason:
the answer can only foster envy or humiliation, emotions best avoided if you want to keep some friends.
And so I don’t find it strange that I have absolutely no idea what my siblings or my closest friends earn, or that I have friends who freely admit that they have no idea what their partner makes.
At a time when private sector pay has fallen by 11 per cent, unemployment figures are inching towards 500,000 and the debate about how to get the economy back on track seems to have degenerated into a slagging match between public and private sectors about who earns more, there are greater reasons than ever to preserve the mystique.
However, one of the ironies of capitalist economies is that, for all the time we spend speculating about it, the figure at the bottom of your pay slip has probably very little to do with why you get out of bed every morning.
I have changed job three times in the last five years, each time switching to a role in which my earning capacity was - ostensibly at least - reduced. But each change gave me some things I regarded as more important: greater autonomy, the opportunity to learn and, eventually, time for matters more important than work.
I thought my deliberate downward trajectory on the salary scale made me some kind of economic anomaly. But it turns out that social scientists have known for the best part of half a decade that financial incentives are not the only, or even the best way, to motivate employees.
The notion that the more you pay people the harder they’ll work is yet another principle of the dismal science of economics which turns out not to be grounded in actual human behaviour.
Take the ‘candle problem’ experiment developed by Karl Duncker in the 1940s.Duncker’s volunteers found themselves in a room with a table which held a box of drawing pins, a candle and some matches. The psychologist challenged them to find a way to attach the candle to the wall so that the wax wouldn’t drip onto the table.
After five or ten minutes spent fruitlessly trying to tack or glue the candle to the wall with melted wax, most figured out that the only way to do this was to empty the drawing pins out of the box, tack it to the wall, and use it as an impromptu candle stand.
Twenty or so years later, a sociologist at Princeton University in the US called Sam Glucksberg repeated the experiment, with one subtle difference.
He divided the volunteers into two groups, one of which was to receive a direct financial incentive for their work. The reward for the other group was purely the satisfaction of knowing they had come up with a solution to the task.
Incredibly, the ‘satisfaction alone’ group decisively beat the financial rewards group every time, coming up with the solution - on average - three and a half minutes faster.
The lesson, which is recounted in Dan Pink’s book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, was straightforward, but so counterintuitive that, some 40 years later, economists and employers are still grappling with it.
People, especially those working in fields which require them to find creative solutions to problems, are not motivated by money alone. Often, they’re not motivated by money at all. Financial rewards may concentrate the mind but they also narrow our focus.
Now, I’m no communist. I believe in free market economics. I know this is not how it’s supposed to be. We didn’t get to be the fastest-growing economy in Europe by 2006 simply by rewarding people with a pat on the back and sending them home with the satisfaction of knowing they’d done a good job.
But we also didn’t get to be the fastest shrinking economy in Europe three short years later by coming up with creative and unexpected solutions to the challenges the upheaval in the world’s markets had thrown our way.
I thought about this last week when I had lunch in the lava lamp capital of Europe, Google HQ. Google is a company which prides itself on encouraging its employees to think creatively.
The financial rewards of working there are comparable with those available in other companies in the IT or media sectors. But it’s the ancilliary benefits which give Googlers that smug, dreamy look normally confined to those in the first flushes of a love affair, or Mac owners.
On my way there, an e-mail pinged into my phone, asking me to choose whether I’d prefer to dine from that day’s Fusion Cafe food menu, which was offering Indian fare, or the Earth cafe, where I could dine on homemade soup and gourmet pizzas.
For someone whose last full-time office job was in the vast, chocolate brown formica desert of the RTE newsroom, it’s easy to be cynical about the Technicolored Google culture.
Yes, there are lava lamps in reception, pool tables and baby’s high chairs in the canteen, bean bags scattered around the offices, fridges full of smoothies and massage chairs.
But the unconventional corporate culture also extends beyond beanbags and primary coloured wallpaper.
There is, for example, a concept called ‘20 per cent time’, whereby Google engineers are encouraged to spend an average of one day a week working on projects which are nothing to do with their regular jobs.
If they have a good idea they want to pursue, they can choose who they’d like to work on it with them, even where they want to work. Reportedly, half of the new products launched every year are created during this 20 per cent time.
Google seems to have capitalised very effectively on the more ephemeral benefits of work: factors that social scientists call ‘‘autonomy, mastery and purpose’’ (and freelance journalists call ‘‘the freedom to pad around the house in pyjamas all day’’).
As the focus of public debate settles on the need to improve productivity and achieve economic efficiencies, this should be music to the ears of employers and government.
We have a unique opportunity to influence the kind of economy - and the kind of society - we would like to rebuild from the ashes of the past few years. Now is the time when we should be thinking not just outside the box, but turning the box upside down, shaking its contents onto the floor and starting over.
Then again, what else would you expect from a journalist who has spent all day mooching around the house in her pyjamas?