The Seven Deadly Sins: not the ideal place to look for workplace motivation

I have to say these comments reveal a fairly unpleasant, careless elitism that somehow suggests we should give up on a whole swath of fellow citizens

That was UK Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, who went on to say:

To talk about us as if we are a sort of breed of dogs, a species I think he calls it …

We are a species Nick, and a breed of dogs isn’t a species … I’m not clear on what the danger of using this sort of language is …

the danger is …

… go on …

…if you start taking such a deterministic view of people because they have got a number attached to them, in this case an IQ number, they are not going to rise to the top of the cornflake packet

He was talking about Boris Johnson’s speech at the Centre for Policy Studies last week (see here for the full text in the Telegraph).

I think most people would agree that a Huxley-esque world where everyone in our species knows their place, and no-one can fight for a better position in the Cornflake packet, is a bad thing … but what made me consider this appropriate fodder for this blog was Boris’s decision to trumpet the glories of envy and greed as good workplace motivators.

… some measure of inequality is essential for the spirit of envy and keeping up with the Joneses that is, like greed, a valuable spur to economic activity

As David Lammy (Labour) said:

It’s extraordinary for a mayor … to think it’s all right to glorify greed – a greed that has brought a banking collapse and caused misery and hardship to many …

The Bible defined Seven Deadly Sins, six of which I would agree are “sins” in the sense that they are generally negative in their impact (lust is not a sin, it’s great).

The remaining six are: envy, greed, anger, pride, sloth and gluttony (source).

Now, I’m not making a religious point. I am not at all religious, but these six were picked out for good reason: they spoil things for everyone.

We can probably drop gluttony from the list because its workplace impact is minimal (except perhaps at lunchtime), and perhaps sloth because it does not act as a motivator in the sense that Johnson was arguing, but that still leaves us with four unhealthy human emotions that have an overwhelmingly negative impact on the workplace.

I don’t wish to caricature what the London Mayor was saying. He was clear to point out that he is not suggesting a return to the worst excesses of the greedy eighties:

I also hope that there is no return to that spirit of Loadsamoney heartlessness – figuratively riffling banknotes under the noses of the homeless; and I hope that this time the Gordon Gekkos of London are conspicuous not just for their greed – valid motivator thought greed may be for economic progress – as for what they give and do for the rest of the population …

But … the vast majority of reasons people are motivated in work has nothing to do with greed and envy …

People are motivated by:

  • Wanting to achieve excellence
  • Recognition
  • Wanting to contribute and make a difference
  • The pleasure of collaboration
  • Being part of something bigger / something they believe in
  • Needing to survive financially
  • Wanting to be influential
  • Wanting power and importance (pride?)

Greed and envy are a long way down the list – so why focus on them?

When I worked (briefly) (and fairly unsuccessfully) as a salesman, we were greeted each morning with a “motivational speech” designed to appeal to our hunger for hard cash (greed) and our desire to best our colleagues (envy).

It didn’t work.

Most of us tried to sell because we wanted to be good at our jobs. We didn’t fight to outsell each other, we cooperated and felt genuine pleasure when the “Champagne” cork flew off to announce yet another sale for one of our much-loved colleagues.

Greed and envy failed even us: a team of direct salespeople paid only on commission!

OK, they can provide a positive boost of motivation for some people in some cases, but more often than not they are the cause of negative activity: undermining others, politics and gossip, fraud, dishonesty … so why trumpet these perilous two rather than the much more effective and positive alternatives listed above?

There is a real danger that, as the political pendulum swings rightward, the idea that greed and envy are the key motivators behind human endeavour, and therefore should be celebrated not stifled, may again take hold.

This would be tragic.

Management has made great progress since Gordon Gekko strode proudly down Wall Street proclaiming the virtues of greed. We now have a much more layered and complex understanding of workplace motivation than we did back when popsters Wham! judged it a good idea to appear on TV’s Top of the Pops like this:


Worse even than that, we should remember where excessive greed and unbridled envy got us: Enron, banking collapse, financial and economic catastrophe, to name the most obvious few.

Boris seems to have forgotten this.

He should perhaps remember George Santayana’s warning that …

those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it

(Source for the Nick Clegg and David Lammy quotes)


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