in book

Why We Work Summary

Here’s the Why We Work summary. Why do we work? Why people are still unsatisfied despite receiving a healthy compensation? Gain insights on how to become a more satisfied worker and find great work.


Why We Work author Barry Schwartz tries to answer the simple question: Why do we work? The question is simple but the answer is not. For some people, they will answer it’s because of the paycheck. They work because there’s money involved.

However, the answer is not always that simple for many people. Despite receiving good compensation (plus benefits), they still feel empty. They don’t give their best. The drive to do great work goes beyond the financial incentive.

About the Author

Barry Schwartz is an American psychologist who specializes in studying the link between economics and psychology. One of his popular works, The Paradox of Choice, became a bestseller. He discussed one of the great mysteries of modern life, which is why abundant societies experience depression more.

He has also taught in the psychology department of Swarthmore College, Pennsylvania for over 30 years. His articles have been published in The New York Times, Harvard Business Review, and other media outlets.

Main takeaways: Why We Work Summary

Let’s discuss the key takeaways from his book:

  1. A mission keeps employees engaged and motivated.
  2. More money is not always a good incentive.
  3. Autonomy empowers people to do their best.

A mission keeps employees engaged and motivated

Many people think of a job as just a way to pay the bills. People go to work and receive a salary. They just do whatever is required by the boss or company. They don’t go beyond their job description.

It’s natural. But once they get home, they feel some emptiness. They feel the frustrations. They feel they’re not making any difference at all. They feel that they’re just there to work and get paid.

The result is that the employee doesn’t feel the energy. He becomes automatic. It all becomes part of a routine. He feels that there’s nothing much he can do.

But if the boss and the managers introduce a mission, many employees get inspired and excited. They’ll feel that they’re making a difference. They’ll know that what they’re doing leads to something good.

A mission fuels the whole company. It gives direction. It also gives a vision for employees. That’s why great companies always have a great mission. They want to be #1. They want to change the world. They want to affect millions of lives.

Those statements are sure to give extra boost to their employees. They’ll come up with more ideas on how to get better in their job. They’ll feel a sense of involvement. Money is still important. But with the mission, they’ll feel they’re getting more from the company.

More money is not always a good incentive

First, the monthly salary should cover all the needs and some wants of the employees. Get money out of the way first so people can focus on their work. This way, they won’t have to continue worrying about their budget for the month.

Once the needs and some wants are covered, an increase in salary doesn’t always motivate people to work harder. That’s because the price might not be worth it for them.

Maybe they need to handle more responsibilities and spend extra work time to get the increase. The price might be too much for them. Maybe they want to maintain the amount of time they spend with their family. Or they want to take care of their health. Maybe there are other reasons that make the increase not worth it.

That’s why it’s important to move beyond the financial incentive. Based on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, once people satisfy their basic needs (food, shelter, security, safety, etc.), it becomes easier for them to go to the higher hierarchies of needs. They can start focusing on belongingness, esteem, and achieving their full potential.

So if employees are already feeling safe and you provide more of their basic needs (high salary and good benefits), there’s a tendency it won’t have much effect. Their focus is already on the higher levels.

If you’re an employee, try to cover all your basic needs and some wants first. Then you can focus on finding purpose on your work. If you’re a CEO, think of other incentives besides money when asking your employees to do more. Their minds are already thinking of rewards beyond financial incentives.

Autonomy empowers people to do their best

Autonomy is one of the elements that drive people to give their best in the workplace. If you give them control on their job, they will feel more engaged. They’ll feel the sense of involvement. You empower them.

They also get proud of their work because they’re in control. They now have more power over their decisions. They can work independently and get the work done fast because no one’s interfering them.

First, people should have all the information and tools before they can gain full control. This way, it becomes unnecessary for them to bother the manager. It’s also a way to make quick decisions without the need for others’ approval.

Once they have all the information and the tools, the manager can just give the purpose of each task. The manager can give the ‘why’ while the employee takes care of the ‘how.’ The employee can then take the best course of action without regularly consulting her manager.

There you have it. More money is not always the answer. People now are looking for meaning when they work. They want a purpose. They also want to feel empowered. This way, they can give their best. The result often benefits the whole company.

Buy this book through my Amazon affiliate link