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The Nature of Work

What is work, and how do people feel about the work they do? These questions may be answered from several perspectives. Perhaps one of the best ways to understand how people feel about their jobs is simply to ask them. A number of years ago Chicago writer Studs Terkel did exactly that. How did the people he interviewed feel about their jobs? Here are some excerpts from his book Working.

Examples such as these—and there are many, many more—show how some employees view their jobs and the work they perform. Obviously, some jobs are more meaningful than others, and some individuals are more easily satisfied than others. Some people live to work, while others simply work to live. In any case, people clearly have strong feelings about what they do on the job and about the people with whom they work. In our study of behavior in organizations, we shall examine what people do, what causes them to do it, and how they feel about what they do. As a prelude to this analysis, however, we should first consider the basic unit of analysis in this study: work itself. What is work, and what functions does it serve in today’s society?

Functions of Work
We know why work activities are important from an organization’s viewpoint. Without work there is no product or service to provide. But why is work important to individuals? What functions does it serve?

First, work serves a rather obvious economic function. In exchange for labor, individuals receive necessary income with which to support themselves and their families. But people work for many reasons beyond simple economic necessity.

Second, work also serves several social functions. The workplace provides opportunities for meeting new people and developing friendships. Many people spend more time at work with their co-workers than they spend at home with their own families.

Third, work also provides a source of social status in the community. One’s occupation is a clue to how one is regarded on the basis of standards of importance prescribed by the community. For instance, in the United States a corporate president is generally accorded greater status than a janitor in the same corporation. In China, on the other hand, great status is ascribed to peasants and people from the working class, whereas managers are not so significantly differentiated from those they manage. In Japan, status is first a function of the company you work for and how well-known it is, and then the position you hold. It is important to note here that the status associated with the work we perform often transcends the boundaries of our organization. A corporate president or a university president may have a great deal of status in the community at large because of his position in the organization. Hence, the work we do can simultaneously represent a source of social differentiation and a source of social integration.

Fourth, work can be an important source of identity and self-esteem and, for some, a means for self-actualization. It provides a sense of purpose for individuals and clarifies their value or contribution to society. As Freud noted long ago, “Work has a greater effect than any other technique of living in binding the individual more closely to reality; in his work he is at least securely attached to a part of reality, the human community.”2 Work contributes to self-esteem in at least two ways. First, it provides individuals with an opportunity to demonstrate competence or mastery over themselves and their environment. Individuals discover that they can actually do something. Second, work reassures individuals that they are carrying out activities that produce something of value to others—that they have something significant to offer. Without this, the individual feels that he has little to contribute and is thus of little value to society.

We clearly can see that work serves several useful purposes from an individual’s standpoint. It provides a degree of economic self-sufficiency, social interchange, social status, self-esteem, and identity. Without this, individuals often experience sensations of powerlessness, meaninglessness, and normlessness—a condition called alienation. In work, individuals have the possibility of finding some meaning in their day-to-day activities—if, of course, their work is sufficiently challenging. When employees are not involved in their jobs because the work is not challenging enough, they usually see no reason to apply themselves, which, of course, jeopardizes productivity and organizational effectiveness. This self-evident truth has given rise to a general concern among managers about declining productivity and work values. In fact, concern about this situation has caused many managers to take a renewed interest in how the behavioral sciences can help them solve many of the problems of people at work.