How do I motivate myself to be a good cog in the machine?
May 21, 2007 10:00 AM   Subscribe

How do I motivate myself at work now that I'm at a much bigger employer and my contributions to the organization aren't that important anymore? "Just do it" is the WRONG answer. So it GTD. I need a new way of thinking about the world, or a life coach, or something.

At the start of my career, I had jobs at small organizations where the amount of effort I put in had a visible effect on the quality of the product we put out. I worked long, hard hours, and was passionate about my field. I'm still proud of the contributions I made, and of my rapid career rise. (I'm in a field where people rise by moving to larger, more prestigious, employers.)

About a year ago, I was hired by a fairly large employer, where my contributions are much less significant. I'm doing about 25 percent as much work as I'd done in the past, and for that I get praise, good performance reviews, and raises. Meanwhile, I spend most of my on-the-job time feeling bored and surfing the web.

It doesn't have to be this way! If I contributed more, my extra efforts would be welcomed. I could do more of the small projects I've always done, and I could even do some big projects I've always dreamed of doing. I finally have the time and resources to make it happen. But now that I'm such a small cog in the machine, now that even full-out effort makes relatively little difference to the organization as a whole, I can't seem to make myself work any harder.

I've read through a lot of "how to get motivated" threads here. I've even posted my own questions on the subject from time to time. I don't think a system that I come up with on my own, a kick by myself to my own pants, is going to help. I need some kind of outside intervention or a new paradigm or something.

I feel lost. I'm not happy being so bored at work, but I don't get much satisfaction out of trying to work harder, either. What should I do?
posted by croutonsupafreak to Work & Money (10 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
go back to a smaller company. It looks like a big company is not for you. Some people work better in smaller companies, others in larger. Looks like you are happier in a smaller more entrepreneurial environment - nothing wrong with that, quite the opposite.
posted by seawallrunner at 10:09 AM on May 21, 2007

Response by poster: Um, OK, I'm also in a field where I'd have to move at least 30 miles and sacrifice about a third of my income to go to a smaller company, and I really like my money and my city.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 10:13 AM on May 21, 2007

Just playing devil's advocate, but if you really want something as fundamental as "a new way of looking at the world", surely you're going to have to not rule out changing jobs/sacrificing income/moving city? Your request for a new paradigm doesn't really square with your refusal to consider changing the basic parameters of your life.

If you are in fact quite comfortable with your current paradigm that's fine. But then the answer might just be GTD or something.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 10:28 AM on May 21, 2007

One of the best things about being in a big organization, is finding like minded people, and then putting together nearly counter-culture teams of people with plenty of resources to do difficult things. There are just things a place like General Electric or IBM offers, that no other kind of organization really does, because of size, legacy success, and their patent piles and surrounding capabilities.

In his 1981 book "The Soul of a New Machine" author Tracy Kidder talks about this very topic, at book length, from several perspectives. Technologically dated and overly dramatic as it might seem to a first time reader today, the interior psychological landscape of it's protagnists and main characters might suggest that you view your current organization differently, as an immediate means of getting some sparks back into your work life.

As an example, you could, just for the experience of it (if you've never done it), plan and conduct a "sign up" ritual, as discussed in Kidder's book, for an unspecified, speculative "Project X," whose very definition you ultimately reveal to the signed up team as being their first challenge. But recognize, going in, that this is serious gamesmanship, and that it is a straight road to either emotive, passionate excellence in your current situation, or to changing fields. Either way, if you love 80 and 90 hour work weeks, it's certainly one way of getting back in that groove.
posted by paulsc at 10:31 AM on May 21, 2007

It sounds like your major motivation comes from "making a difference" - you need to feel like the visible end-results of your work vary according to your level of effort. In this new company, apparently the quality of the finished goods doesn't depend much on your level of effort. It sounds like your performance reviews and monetary compensation aren't much affected by your effort either, but there must be something that is.

So I propose that you find something that you can directly affect, and keep it in your head as your main job responsibility. Instead of "I'm a designer, and my main job is to design postage stamps" (or whatever it is that you do), maybe you need to think of your main job as "keeping my boss relaxed and unstressed," and you can gauge your success by the depth of the lines in her forehead on any given day. Maybe you need to think of your job as "learning and getting experience so I can move on to something else," and you can gauge your success by how quickly you can check items off your list of things to learn.

Maybe I'm way off, and your motivation comes from somewhere else entirely, but most people seem to work better when they feel like their work has a noticeable positive effect on something. You just have to figure out what that something is.

And, if you think your boss is the right type for it, maybe you could bring it up with him or her. A good manager should have strategies for keeping people motivated, and should also understand how their employees are necessary for the overall operations of the company. You sound like you could use some insight into both of these things. If your career trajectory is as common as you say, perhaps your manager has even dealt with people having similar issues before. If your boss is especially cool, you might even try asking them for more work, or more critical performance reviews, if you're sure that that's what you want. Of course all of this paragraph hinges on you having a really competent boss, and only you know whether these kinds of conversations would be appropriate.
posted by vytae at 1:00 PM on May 21, 2007

When I was a programmer, my main satisfaction (aside from the money) was in seeing how good my design/code could be: elegant, efficient, understandable, etc. Is this kind of striving translatable to your situation?

You sound like you do need more work to fill that other 75% of the time. Wouldn't your bosses have new ideas for side projects if you asked them? Would they reject your ideas for new projects? But do it for your own satisfaction, rather than for some big effect in the organization. Could you find something interesting in them? This is a bit like the advice they tell to writers (write what you yourself would most like to read).

Just kicking yourself in the pants is not something I've found worked more than a day or 2. I needed to find something interesting in what I was doing.
posted by DarkForest at 1:59 PM on May 21, 2007

Learn how to politely ask your supervisors for more, harder work. Take a critical look at existing systems and pitch ideas on how to improve them.

I've found myself in the same situation often. Whining always makes it worse, working on personal non-directed projects is almost always a waste of time. People don't like it when you suggest you have too much 'idle' time.

Usually there are projects that will make a big difference, but no one wants to pay for them. Pretend you are doing these projects after hours, and work on them when you're idle.

This, btw, is one of the essential truths of the workforce. Most people are only productive 25% of the time, and companies are structured around them - the weak links. Bravo to you for taking up the slack, keep it up and you'll be recognized.
posted by milinar at 3:05 PM on May 21, 2007

Seek out the smaller company withing the bigger company. Look for a project or department that is somewhat self-contained to the point that it runs essentially like its own company. It might be a small project, it might be the R&D department, or advanced design or market development.

I've worked for big companies and I've worked for small companies, and the best of both worlds is to find the "small company" in a big company. It may be tough to get into that situation, but then again, some people see working for the "small project" like being sidelined. If that's the kind of environment you like, do you really care how others view it?
posted by Doohickie at 3:38 PM on May 21, 2007

This is a really interesting question -- I've certainly wrestled with the same thing myself. It sounds like you really like a new challenge, you like to feel needed and know you're making a difference, you like the steep learning curve...

At minimum, why not start up some small project within the company where your energy is essential, your efforts are measurable, and where you feel challenged (and even where there's a chance of failure)? There must be some "venture team" or "expansion into Europe" or "new division" or "new homeless shelter" to which you could become essential.

But surely there's some way you can make the company significantly more successful (more profitable, or whatever the metric of success is)? Instead of just aiming to do your job extra-well, with the 4.5% vs. 6.1% impact you seem to think your extra effort will have, why not try to figure out a way the company could become significantly more successful, and then start pushing those? If you taught yourself the basics so quickly, you're probably ready for a bigger challenge like this.

To take it further, I wonder, just from past posts of yours, whether part of the problem is that in such a big company, you don't really care that much about the company's well-being, since it's a little impersonal. Forgive me if this doesn't ring true, but my vague impression is that you like to fight against bad guys and help those with less power. So could you find something you do care about, some social cause, and then try to use the power of this big company to help that cause?

Say you were working for an investment bank, you could initiate a micredit lending program devoted to inner-city neighborhood revitalization, or become the fund manager for a socially responsible investment fund. Then you'd have to convince people to let you try these, build them from the ground up, and then prove your assertions that they would succeed and be profitable.

Your new paradigm could be that big corporations have a lot of power, and that power could make a big difference in the world. Right now, you have a certain role within the company. But instead of your daily job being "play your role well," it could be to redirect the course of this big company and the way it interacts with the world.

A precedent (if you need to justify it to your bosses) is Google employees' "20 percent time" projects, from which has come amazing stuff like this. These projects mean they keep innovating, gets them a lot of press, and in some cases really help the world.
posted by salvia at 7:10 PM on May 27, 2007

Oh hey, assuming you're still around, croutonsupafreak, why did you tag this with The Peter Principle? You think you've been promoted beyond the level at which you'd thrive? Or maybe you think you're one of those creative people that doesn't do so well in highly-structured lower-level positions? (If it's the former, I really wouldn't look at it that way, but I won't go on without knowing if that's what you meant.)
posted by salvia at 7:19 PM on May 27, 2007

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