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I got the workplace ‘blues’

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The workplace 'blues'

Although you may never have thought about applying different genres of music to workplace issues, in this article Peter Cook discusses how organisations can achieve motivation and productivity the ‘rock’n’roll’ way.


‘I was looking for a job, then I found one. Heaven knows I’m miserable now’. How often have you heard these words for real in the workplace? Poor morale and motivation account for massive waste in effort, costs and profits in even the most successful organisations.

So what can Morrissey, Minztberg, Meatloaf, Maslow, Motorhead, Madonna et al teach us about how to create a work climate and culture that rocks? In the book ‘Sex, Leadership and Rock’n’Roll’, I explore classic ideas about motivation through a rich mix of great academic thinking, ‘tamed’ with the pithy wisdom of rock and pop culture. Let’s start with a look at the ‘blues’.

Can’t buy me love?

“In the modern workplace, you cannot have a blues that goes ‘woke up this morning, the server was down’.”

Most blues songs begin: ‘Woke up this morning’ and then move on to motivational problems such as ‘the landlord wants to repossess my home’ or ‘my woman left me’.

In the modern workplace, you cannot have a blues that goes ‘woke up this morning, the server was down’ or ‘woke up this morning, I got a good HR manager who self actualises me’.

Quite surprisingly, this cheesy contrast makes a great deal of practical sense. Frederick Herzberg pointed out the difference between those factors that merely remove dissatisfaction at work, e.g. pay, administration, supervision (called dissatisfiers) and those factors that encourage job satisfaction, e.g. responsibility, advancement and so on (called satisfiers).

Many HR reward systems only focus on removing dissatisfaction. It’s no surprise that they fail to motivate. As Prince said, ‘Money don’t buy you happiness, but it sho’ ’nuff pays for the research’. In other words, inadequate pay dissatisfies, but no amount of pay will produce long-term job satisfaction.

This is especially true for Generation Y and beyond, who crave much greater things from work today. Companies such as First Direct, B&Q and Prêt à Manger have learned this point well and surpass others with people who bring their heads, hearts and souls to work.

River deep, mountain high

Coming back to our blues examples, repossession of the home and losing one’s lover are located towards the lower levels of Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs i.e. shelter and belonging. Maslow crucially pointed out that there was a hierarchy of needs from physiological through to ego and self actualisation. So we really cannot have a blues that starts ‘woke up this morning, I got a good manager, who sets meaningful performance goals and leverages my talent in ways that provide long term career development tailored to my talents’, unless the basics are also in sufficient supply.

HR therefore needs to be not only strategic and visionary, but also tactical and detail conscious in a way that motivates staff.

I want it all and I want it now

In a culture of mass individualisation, employees expect to be treated as individuals, yet many HR systems tend to treat them as a collective in the interests of fairness, equity and conflict avoidance.

“In a culture of mass individualisation, employees expect to be treated as individuals, yet many HR systems tend to treat them as a collective in the interests of fairness, equity and conflict avoidance.”

Personalisation is the key to individual motivation. This requires HR systems that are responsive, both in speed and flexibility.

We gotta get out of this place

Blues can take place in New York City, but not in Newark. Hard times in Minneapolis or Canterbury is probably just clinical depression. Chicago, St. Louis, and Kansas City are still the best places to have the blues, not York, Bath or Slough. You can’t have no blues in a shopping mall. The lighting is all wrong.

The physical and psychological environment are important components of motivation. Although working conditions are a Herzberg dissatisfier, poor working conditions really make for poor performance and, more importantly, these things are not so expensive to put right. A pleasant work environment is no substitute for the least expensive and most effective motivator – behaviour that encourages others to give their all, which leads us to our last point.

I’d do anything for love, but I won’t do that

I did a gig with Lorraine Crosby, who sang on Meatloaf’s classic song, but failed to discover what ‘that’ is in the context of the song, so we’ll concentrate on the ‘love’ part. Praise is the least expensive but highest value motivator. It merely takes time and must come from the heart.

The built environment helps people to feel good about work, but how people behave is crucial to long-term motivation. Find ways to spot people doing things well and let them know about it.


Peter Cook is MD of Human Dynamics and author of ‘Sex, Leadership and Rock’n’Roll – Leadership Lessons from the Academy of Rock’, available from Waterstones, Amazon and www.academy-of-rock.co.uk

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