Is Pay the Most Important Thing About Work to You? To Others?

Assay: Over the weekend, I re-read a fascinating book, Alfie Kohn’s  Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes.

I was thrilled to find discussion of some research that I’d thought about often, but had never been able to find again; I didn’t take notes on it and couldn’t remember where I’d seen it.

Eureka! There it was.

It’s very interesting research about how people value money and pay.

Now,  it’s clear that when people don’t have enough money to meet their basic needs, or when they’re worried that they’re going to lose a job, they’re very focused on how much money they’re paid. Money is like health: we tend to think about it most when we don’t have it.

And it’s also clear that people are very concerned with being paid fairly. For instance, if someone else is getting paid more to do the same job, that breeds unhappiness.

However–and this is the interesting part–once those conditions are met, money starts to be less important than other things at work. And here’s the really interesting part–although people recognize that for themselves, other values count more than money (though money remains important), they assume that other people find money the most significant aspect of work.

In other words: after a certain point, we don’t think money is all-important, but we assume that other people think that money is all-important.

Kohn observes:

“…it doesn’t follow that most of us think about our work chiefly in terms of the extrinsic rewards [i.e. money] it brings. Several studies over the last few decades have found that when people are asked to guess what matters to their coworkers—or in the case of managers, to their subordinates—they assume money is at the top of the list. But put the question directly—“What do you care about?”—and the results look very different.”

For example, in a survey of utility company applicants over the course of thirty years, “pay” was sixth out of ten job factors (such as “type of work”). But when people were asked what they thought other people would find important, most people listed “pay.”

This observation seems important to me, because if everyone believes that everyone else is most motivated by money, they’ll make many assumptions about work, motivation, and human nature that just may not be true.

Gertrude Stein wrote, “Everyone has to make up their mind if money is money or money isn’t money and sooner or later they always do decide that money is money.” Money is money, but what does that mean? The relationship between money and happiness is one of the most complicated and emotionally fraught subjects within the broad issue of happiness.

What do you think?  How do you think about money and pay–and how do you think others think about it?

  • It may have been in my earlier years. Today, it’s about doing WHAT I LOVE; what fulfills me. I believe there’s a way to get paid well WHILE doing what you’re passionate about, and the search for this combination is worth embarking upon.

  • Peninith1

    As a woman who divorced in my 30s and had two children to care for, I worked pretty hard and strove ambitiously for advancement until I felt like I had my bases covered. . . health insurance, provision for my kids to get launched in life if something should happen to me, prospect of an income that would keep me going in retirement at a standard of living that more or less extended my life as it was while I was working. When I had that ‘enoughness’ in sight, what I looked for was satisfaction in my work and a community where I wanted to live for the long run.

    I feel hugely blessed and fortunate that I was able to earn a better-than-average salary and provide for myself. Now that I am retired, I am surprised by several things–I don’t miss my career; I’m in love with the day’s work I now do, pursuing my own interests with delight at my own behest and not for money. I value my continuing friendships with my former colleagues who are still working or also retired. I have no regrets about not ‘aiming higher’ either for a more advanced position or a bigger income. I’m one of the lucky few whose idea of ‘enough’ was something I was able to achieve. At least . . . so far, so good!

     The only times I have found myself wishing for’more’ are the times when I wish I had more to give away. If I lacked ambition, the ambition to be more able to invest in my family and to be more of a giver or even a philanthropist. This was an ambition missing from my working life, which for many years was focused on security alone. I have great admiration for people who, with modest resources or even tiny incomes, have the vision and passion to invest in something beyond their own personal security.

    You know, Gretchen, you really DO give us important things to think about on a shockingly regular basis!

  • I think money is a tool, and a mighty useful one at that, but at the same time, it is no more than a tool.

  • AugieWeiss

    “Is Pay the Most Important Thing About Work to You?” Absolutely not. It’s funny maybe because of my ADHD or other factors but once my basic needs are met than I never cared about the money.  I left that up to my wife. LOL 

    The best explanation of my motivation came when I read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers.
    “Those three things — autonomy, complexity, and a connection between effort and reward — are, most people agree, the three qualities that work has to have if it is to be satisfying. It is not how much money we make that ultimately makes us happy between nine and five. It’s whether our work fulfills us.”

    Here is another nice explanation using Gladwell’s positive and Patrick Lencioni whos’s The Three Signs of a Miserable Job takes the negative approach.

  • MrTravisScott

    Money is important to an extent. Obviously it is important to have money to provide food, shelter and clothing. I also think it is important to have money to provide personal growth (books, classes), spend on experiences, and have some in the bank for security. On the other hand, I think it can be dangerous if the purpose of having money is to constantly upgrade your clothes, houses, cars, and possessions. It is part of the equation to happiness.

  • Money isn’t everything, of course (oh, how the cliches roll with this subject!), but I tend to agree with Stein. Money is a tool, so more of it is a way to do more of whatever things you think are worth doing. I’m also curious if there are differences in male and female mindsets on this question. I suspect women often tell ourselves that pay doesn’t matter so much…so we wind up earning less. 

  • Hersheybarb

    As a 60 year old woman who seriously wants to retire, all I think about is money.  I do not have a pension.  I make a crummy 8.65/hour.   I work for my pay and for no other reason.  If I were able to support myself doing what I want, that WOULD be a whole other story, wouldn’t it.  I would love to meet a wholly satisfied, self-supporting artist who has no trust fund income or wealthy patron paying the rent, etc.   I would also like to know the number of people who TRULY are doing what they want FOR A LIVING, not just a job that they happen to like or enjoy well-enough.    (I probably shouldn’t have read this after getting home from “the job.”) 😉

    • Meg R

      We weren’t raised at a time when it was  believed women could even take care of ourselves, never mind make career choices.  I remember standing in the kitchen in a screaming match with father over me not wanting to learn to cook.  His argument was that if I didn’t learn, how was I ever going to find a husband so I could begin my career as a housewife . . . . I was 12.  In these years you have done a great thing by being able to keep your head above water and keep your life going.  I know its hard, I was forced into retirement and do live on a small pension, that allows me to get up and keep going everyday.  For this I am grateful to God. 

  • Hi Gretchen, what a challenge!

    I won’t venture to think what’s important for other folks. Pay is important to me, but not all important. Money enables me to live the life I desire. I won’t pretend that it “can’t buy happiness”. It does help significantly. However, there comes a point where the money is marginal. My reason for work is primarily creative expression.

  • When you’re miserable and feeling so bad about a job, money stops to matter.

  • For most people, money is a big part of a platform that provides a sense of safety and security.  Once that platform is in place – and I’ve heard about studies that say at about $75K per year, money doesn’t really move the happiness dial very much.  Maybe if you have more to share/ give away that might be the exception.

    Robert Levering at Great Place to Work has been studying this for a while and basically his research says that you’re happy at work when – you respect those you work for, you like the people you work with, and you enjoy the work you do.

    In Drive, Daniel Pink tells us that autonomy, mastery, and sense of purpose are the keys to intrinsic (vs. extrinsic) motivation.

    My takeaway: money is important to a point, but everyday happiness is available abundantly all around us.  We can be happy in almost any circumstance, it’s just a question of how easy is it for each of us to let go and just have it.

  • Kate

    I keep hearing that money isn’t all that important beyond a certain point, and I tend to believe it, but that leads me to a question: Why, then, do we pay executives so much more than the average worker? They certainly have passed the $75,000 threshold, and supposedly money doesn’t matter that much. So why do we reward them excessively as if it does?

    • megs283

       And it often seems as though executives are the ones who parrot the studies that say money doesn’t matter…

    • Interesting topic.I guess if they get a job offer from another company for significantly lower wage most of them wouldn’t even consider it because of the salary, even if they enjoyed it more.

  • sgs53

    As a teacher, it is so disappointing to see many students interested in the mark on the paper, no matter how it was achieved.  There is no joy in learning or discovery.

  • mk

    I think that money matters to those who equate it with their personal value. If I am paid less than someone else, it isn’t about the money per se, but my perception that I am personally valued less.
    I choose to work part time because it gives me balance and the money is adequate. But if I had been told that I had to reduce my hours (as some workers are), then I might think I was being valued less. 
    Managers need to find ways other than money to show that they value workers. People who feel valued are happier in their jobs. It usually matters more than money.

  • Money and happiness-what a complicated issue to examine.  Money has so many meanings both psychologically and reality wise.  We all need money “to live” (food, shelter, and clothing). Receiving a “fair” salary for a service someone provides has a very positive impact on his/her  self-esteem. It is validating. However, I believe that when our work is either over-valued or under-valued economically, our happiness can then be compromised.
    “Thinking Matters”

  • Eakooy

    I am interested in your thoughts on Kohn’s thoughts on praise and gold stars.  Please consider writing something about this too. 

    As for money, I think most people only have a vague sense of how much they make and bring in until they get too far in debt.   Then they may have an awakening and start to have a sense of how to manage money – whether they make a lot or not.  When most people have tried to keep up with the Joneses for too long, they believe that money motivates work and they think everyone thinks that way.  When people are out of debt and living below their means, they are happy and they aren’t motivated by money in their particular work.  

  • Itsanid7540

    Money is irrelevant to my work satisfaction…always has been that way..Money plays no part in my happiness…because I have always been able to pay necessary bills for needs, extra is a bonus…my needs are few, my wants even fewer. not materialistic…and willing to do most any legal/ethical/moral work to meet my needs when life has gotten a bit out of whack…always know in my heart that I have some loving others to turn to should, for some reason, I can’t make it temporarily. if something is wrong on the job, money 99% of time will not change that past 2 weeks with the increase pay someone thought it would take to make them happy. Happy is from within.

  • Hi Gretchen! Have you seen this TED talk? Spot on with this topic: So interesting.