The Motivation to Work
The Belgian psychologist Joseph Nuttin wrote, “it is a notorious fact that many people are not motivated to do the work they do; they work for extrinsic reasons: in order to do certain things alongside or after their work.” Nonetheless, many others, he observed, “are deeply involved and find their pleasure in the work they accomplish.” What factors account for the difference?
Nuttin, who died in 1988, was an original thinker who brought creative insight as well as experimental ingenuity and analytical power to the study of general psychology. Unlike Freud, whose starting point and abiding interest was psychopathology, he primarily sought to understand well-adjusted, highly functioning people at all levels of their activity. Unlike Thorndike, Hull, and their respective epigones, he recognized and explained the rôles of cognition, intentionality, and self-concept in human behavior. Nuttin developed a dynamic, relational model of personality, one in which “it is suitable to say that personality is not simply situated in a world and open to this world, but that this world enters as an integrating element into the personality itself.” And he expounded a theory of motivation that is, in my opinion, incomparable for its richness and subtlety.
There is no question of summarizing (let alone criticizing) Nuttin’s theory of personality in this short piece. All I can do right now is to mention a theme that is germane to an understanding of the motivation to work. Nuttin objected to the thesis that people are driven primarily by physiological needs—sex, hunger, thirst, self-defense—and its corollary that higher-order needs are at best secondary or derivative. In his view, for example, the organism’s fundamental need to maintain its existence against the external environment is equally present in the hunt for food and the endeavor to be someone in the social world. “We can easily recognize the psychic energy this ‘drive’ contains by imagining, just for an instant, all the effort and tedious work that the education and preliminary training for one career or another, precisely due to which a young human being will become ‘someone’ among the others, requires of the one who submits to it.”
Nor, of course, can Nuttin’s theory of motivation be adequately presented in this space. Given that he places personality, behavior, and motivation in a unified conceptual framework, I can at most indicate some key elements. Building upon his insight that there is no personality without a world and no world without the personality that constructs it, Nuttin states that a person is “a being in situation doing something,” and he defines behavior as “a meaningful response to a situation that also has a sense.” A situated subject acts on a perceived state of affairs in view of a conceived state—a goal—which is more or less ‘realized’ or achieved in the result of the action. The fact that behavior has a goal is central to Nuttin’s understanding of motivation.
With this overlong yet sketchy introduction, let’s turn to Nuttin’s account of the motivation to work. One of the most striking aspects of human behavior, he observes, is that people can’t leave things in the condition they find them. If they don’t undertake to destroy what disturbs them, people are tempted “to intervene, to change, to restructure, to improve.” Human beings also try to intervene in their own development, to become who they want to be, and this tendency is “personalized and made concrete—at least in our culture—in a vocational project.” People generally seem to be motivated to achieve or create something which would not be accomplished or produced without their action. Often they identify with the things they succeed in making real; their opus is an extension of themselves.
In the ideal case, Nuttin says, individuals’ intervention in producing things—their work—is incorporated in the project of their personal development and the realization of their self-concept. In most cases, however, one observes the contrary: “the work one must in fact execute consists in collaborating in the realization of other persons’ projects without the least effort toward a certain integration of projects having been undertaken.” Such extrinsically motivated work remains connected with the need for self-development in the sense that collaborating in an impersonal, collective project provides the feeling of being useful, a feeling which affects one’s self-esteem, as the unemployed will attest. “Nonetheless,” Nuttin writes, “intrinsically motivated work is accompanied by profound satisfaction, and the quality of the work supplied is generally superior.”
Knowledge workers and those who are their own bosses seem to have less difficulty than others in finding tasks that really occupy them. Nuttin realistically acknowledges, however, that, independently of financial problems, few people appear capable of giving themselves work that “counts.” Moreover, an exaggerated fear of taking risks and an immoderate desire for security are factors that, in our society, impede the motivation for accomplishment and the tendency to pursue constructive personal projects. Insofar as there is a solution, the theoretically coherent remedy Nuttin suggests consists in “establishing lines of communication by which the person can find a certain personal development through and in his work.” He cites well-known measures to engage employees, such as involving them in enterprise planning and assigning them responsibility for the results obtained, in short, instituting arrangements that favor the workers’ identifying with their work. “But,” he writes, “psychology still seems a very feeble instrument in this struggle against differently powerful social and economic forces.”
In my view, Nuttin’s pessimism on this point may be unjustified. He might have underestimated how much a strong manager in a progressive corporate culture can do on behalf of employees who are open to the possibility of integrating work and personal growth. And creating the conditions for rewarding work that is, incidentally, of superior quality seems well worth the struggle.
 Théorie de la motivation humaine: Du besoin au projet d’action, 5e édition (Presses Universitaires de France, 2000), 195.
 La Structure de la personnalité, 6e édition (Presses Universitaires de France, 1985), 214.
 Psychanalyse et conception spiritualiste de l’homme, 3e édition (Publications Universitaires de Louvain, 1962), 261. Coming full circle, Nuttin wrote, “the different forms of needs pervade one another like the physiological and psycho-social activities themselves. Thus the need for nourishment is concretely manifested as a need to earn one’s living and, even more concretely, as a need to maintain and develop one’s social standing.” Tâche réussite et échec: Théorie de la conduite humaine (Publications Universitaires de Louvain, 1953), 428. “Social standing” is in English in the original.
 Théorie de la motivation, op. cit., 122.
 Ibid., 104.
 Ibid., 38.
 Ibid., 78.
 Nuttin found the widespread incapacity for constructive self-direction worrisome because, when he was writing, leisure time was expected to increase substantially. That prediction certainly hasn’t come true. Many workers are compelled to sacrifice almost all their free time and hold more than one job just to make ends meet.
 Ibid., 194-199.