Motivated at work by pride & autonomy—how to keep going without those?
April 11, 2022 1:23 PM   Subscribe

I know some people find it easy to do good-enough work. That's never been me. The things that keep me going are pride and autonomy—being trusted to do really good work, and finding ways to deliver. Without those, I lose motivation and struggle to keep my spirits up. Working feels pointless. If you're like me, and you've been micromanaged and asked to do mediocre work, what helped you get through it?

I'm not bragging or saying this makes me better than anyone else. Doing a good-enough job and being nice to your coworkers is really all that should be expected of anyone. But for me personally, what motivates me is pride. Doing work I'm proud of is fun, and doing work I'm not proud of is a miserable slog.

I used have a lot of independence and was trusted to make good decisions. It was awesome. I was so motivated and so engaged. Now—for reasons that, unfortunately, make perfect sense for the company—I'm on a team where the tasks are tiny, the leaders micromanage and don't know what they're doing, and doing work that made me proud would mean picking a bunch of timewasting fights.

For annoying financial reasons, I need to keep this exact job until December. Quitting isn't an option, and transferring teams is unlikely. The smart thing to do is to keep my head down and do boringly okay for the rest of the year. But... how?

If you're like me, and you've gotten through a situation like this, what helped?
posted by flexible-footwear figurine to Work & Money (14 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
Might be helpful to find a project outside of work, on your own time - and sink your pride into that instead.

IMHO that’s healthier anyway - to choose your own goals autonomously & identify with those, rather than to invest yourself overly in stuff where the benefit accrues mainly to your employer.
posted by rd45 at 1:30 PM on April 11 [11 favorites]

I don't know your exact situation, but I've sometimes managed people who got frustrated when they didn't have time to do a 10/10 job because it would take twelve times as long as a 7/10 job, and the client needed a 7/10 job on time more than they needed a late 10/10 job.

If that's your issue, maybe consider that how you define "work that you're proud of" can change. You can be proud of work that's done on time. You can be proud of work that's done to spec (even if you think the specs are stupid).

Alternatively, you can find ways to make it feel like you're getting away with something. Ha ha! Management is such a joke! They're letting me do a shoddy job, so I can focus my energy on things I actually care about!
posted by metasarah at 1:53 PM on April 11 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Yeah, I'm not mad at the company. I get the value of 7/10 work, or even work that ends up being 5/10 because you're doing your best in a 5/10 situation. And I would like to be someone who does this stuff to spec and goes home. That would be best for everyone.

I just... how do I do that? How do I do that thing we both agree I should do? Because when my heart isn't in it, I end up tuning out and doing 3/10 work, or burning out really hard (way harder than I would if I was doing something my heart was in), and that's not beneficial to anyone.
posted by flexible-footwear figurine at 2:03 PM on April 11 [1 favorite]

Meditation. "Eyes on the prize." Do you have space to breathe within the added micromanaging? Update your skills for your eventual job hunt. Maybe read "coping with your micromanaging boss" blogs and books?
posted by rhizome at 2:14 PM on April 11 [2 favorites]

I just stay focused on the money. Am I going to get money for doing it this way? Sweet. That's how I want to do it then.
posted by bleep at 3:23 PM on April 11 [2 favorites]

What do you really care about? If you're staying at this job, it must be because your needs, the things you really care about, are being served.
posted by amtho at 3:59 PM on April 11

Can you make volume your new pride point? Like do the 7/10 job on 3x as many things? That’s of enormous, obvious value to most teams.
posted by kapers at 4:15 PM on April 11 [8 favorites]

I am the same way. I too have often felt most engaged when I have the autonomy to feel like I'm making an impact by doing all-star work to be the Best Employee Ever, and bored to tears (like crying before work everyday and eventually quitting) when I'm stuck in a place where my role and my impact are more narrowly constrained.

But last year I overextended myself to the point of burnout. It was a bit of a perfect storm - big personal stuff happening, shakeups at work adding to my plate, uh pandemic. Since then, I've been reframing my thinking. And yeah, it is NOT worth it to pour my blood, sweat, and tears into something I don't own. My salary is the same whether I do good enough work or go above and beyond - I'm not making an equity investment here - and my life is worse when I fry my brain with over-investing in work and can't spend brainpower on stuff that matters to me personally. And I think it makes me into a pretty boring person!

But like, if engagement and pride in your work motivate you, focusing on "getting away with it" by doing less for the same pay probably will not motivate you. So to bridge the gap, I try to think of how my 70% effort is actually the best thing for my team, that I'm grateful that deciding what's best is the responsibility of someone paid more than I am, and that I'm a better coworker all around if I stay in the lane those decision-makers have assigned me.

My manager will be satisfied with my work if I ease off the gas because that is what my manager asked me to do. I like to think they probably had good reason. Like they know that I need to leave myself slack to respond nimbly in emergencies, which I can't do if I'm already stretched to capacity. Or they've noticed that I can sometimes step on other people's toes when I try to go above and beyond, which hurts relationships with other departments. Or they give a shit about me as a human and want me to make sure I'm taking time to live a life? (Your manager may vary.)

I do find meditation supportive for the HOW of thinking about it all this way. Keeping a regular meditation practice for me means I simply spend a few minutes everyday(ish) quietly noticing when I'm having thoughts and releasing them. The more regularly I practice, the better I'm able to apply this same thing in life - notice a thought or behavior as or before it occurs, and gently redirect if I need to.

So now at work, I try to regularly check in with myself when something outside of my clearly defined responsibilities comes up. I try to pay attention to whether this is something I really personally need to focus a huge amount of energy on, because even if I know I could do it well, it might not be doing a Good Job if it's not my job to do it.

Sometimes I notice this and course-correct before I overdo it. Sometimes I notice it afterward, and without beating myself up, make a mental note that this is a perfect example of that kind of thing to be on the lookout for next time.

Lastly, for me, all of this highly relates to my being autistic - having black and white thinking, hyper empathy, a heightened sense of justice, a strong desire for things to be Correct and Logical, etc. If that resonates with you at all, well, therapy and so forth, but if you want to chat, my MeMail is open, too.
posted by moonbeam at 4:23 PM on April 11 [10 favorites]

I was this person and I became a "good enough is good enough" person at work. But how?

Mostly by recognizing I tied my worth to my output which Is actually a toxic byproduct of capitalism. I'm worthy independent of what I produce. It was philosophically important to me to dismantle that particular programming.

Also by getting enough road blocks that I couldn't maintain that approach. If your environment puts walls up then you lose momentum and mediocre is where I landed. At my last review I told my boss I'm used to being above and beyond, and feeling guilty that my work isn't at that level, and here's xyz reasons and ABC plan to change it. Boss was basically like you are doing an amazing job and we are lucky to have you. So, I got reinforced for my mediocrity and I guess that approval means something too. Clearly your new environment wants to reward mediocrity so maybe just focus on getting their approval?

Or maybe gamify the situation. How much can you stretch by doing less? Can you quantify it somehow? Pride in learning to appease the team and expectations while also generating your own extra thing? In other roles I've sometimes taken on side work also, I took on a project nobody wanted or cared about or created something for myself out of thin air to solve a problem that existed, but wasn't a major priority to anyone else while also not being a situation they need to keep broken for political reasons. A rockstar version of organizing the supply closet.
posted by crunchy potato at 5:31 PM on April 11 [3 favorites]

Moonbeam wrote pretty much what I would have written (including the Autistic part). That, and finding something else to focus your commitment energy on, like a rewarding personal project.
posted by matildaben at 6:36 PM on April 11 [4 favorites]

I love doing great work, but I hate doing great work when people don't recognize it or an organization can't use it, and has led to burnout for me in previous work. And self worth tied to work as crunchy potato mentions, is something I've been undoing following difficulties with that in the past.

With my latest job, I've tried hitting consistent doubles vs. always hitting it out of the park, which seems to be a great match for the team I am working with, and keeps me from doing more than could be reasonably recognized in this context.

Can you reframe the situation as not being worth it to do better than these people can recognize? Sort of as a new constraint?
posted by chiefthe at 7:19 PM on April 11 [1 favorite]

I think you might be describing an attention challenge more than a dissatisfaction problem. It may help to think of it that way. This is what all those techniques you've heard about are for: pomodoros, timers, alarms, internet limits, to-do lists. When you start spinning out, or when you notice you've been disconnected, come back to the list: what did I have to do next? What is the next step?

If this resonates you might read or skim the book "getting things done", it's really good advice on practical tools to churn out tasks and accomplish what you want to even when it's not fun.
posted by Lady Li at 11:51 PM on April 11 [1 favorite]

I feel you so much on this and I am in the exact situation right now. It's so depressing and draining and disappointing. I don't really have good solutions except that one thing I've been doing is focusing on the work I do for a volunteer board in the arts. I've had a lot of extra mental bandwidth to think of some new strategies and help out with more projects than usual and it's quite fulfilling. I still feel a sense of dread every time I log onto my work computer, but at least I'm still accomplishing something meaningful outside of work.
The sunny weather has perked up my spirits a bit and allowed my mind to be in a more "problem-solving" mode to try and find solutions to my predicament, which gives me hope. Make sure to take care of your mental health at a time like this and remind yourself of your talents and skills. Maybe do some networking with people in your field to talk shop, to remind yourself who you are.
posted by winterportage at 8:33 AM on April 12 [1 favorite]

Reframe your goal as getting a better job after December and focus on that. What can you do now to set you up for success then? Cultivate references? Learn a skill? Start going to professional society meetings / conferences?

Your current job has made it clear that they don't care about using your talents. Do your best to disconnect from feeling tied to their longer-term success and goals. Self first.
posted by momus_window at 1:40 PM on April 13 [1 favorite]

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