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Work for Free!

by Jack Santos  |  March 6, 2014  |  Comments Off on Work for Free!

This month’s Strategy and Business had this article:

Would Your Employees Work for Free?  Leaders who manage volunteer work forces have much to teach leaders who manage employees.

I suppose they are suggesting that a measure of employee engagement is whether I as an employee would still do the job for free…

So I am reflecting on experiences where that were born out:

1)      The hospital:  hospitals (up until recently) paid much less than other sectors for IT help – to the point where they would just train low paid clinicians to do IT.  The typical CIO salary was 1/2  to 1/3rd what he/she could earn at a comparable for profit.  The up side was “the mission” – helping save  lives vs. creating a system that optimizes sales is a compelling legacy and (sometimes) makes up for a lot of comp

2)      The college radio station: EVERYONE in a typical college radio station works for free.  I ran one as station manager for two years and technical director for one.  Through administration budget meetings, student strikes, sit-ins, and precarious race relation negotiations.  And always wondered why I (or any of the other 100+ volunteers) would put up with it for nothing.  Music and drugs helped 😉   It also provided a good work experience to be used later.

3)      The start-up:  this was more a case of delayed gratification – if I work for free or near free now, maybe I’ll be filthy rich in the future and not have to work at all.  It’s a Las Vegas crap shoot, but still something many employees (and ITers) buy into.

So  “delayed gratification”  could be the underlying motivator in all these “ideal engagement” scenarios…whether its feeling good about what you did with your life, recognizing skills that could come in handy later, or just hoping for the big payout at the end of the time you put in.  If  it’s no $, then it may be that employees have to see other visible results…or risk the perception that their time is wasted.

The fallacy with equating positive employee engagement with “working for free” is that humans often put up with a lot of hassle for a period of time for a variety of motives – and it may not reflect true “engagement”; also finding someone with charismatic qualities  to follow may also be a factor – playing on that need for security and  shared purpose.  That works for cult leaders, at least for a while.

There’s also a fallacy with equating employee satisfaction with engagement, or the fact that people will work under duress for free… for a while… until they find something else; or the need to achieve an organizational goal for a higher cause – sometimes you have to put up with a lot to accomplish a noble goal — like in a just war (e.g. the Greatest Generation).

Even more importantly – it’s not about top down leadership, but what Tom Friedman recently wrote about in an interview with Laszlo Bock at Google.  He called it “emergent leadership” — the ingrained motivation within all of us, components of which are humility, responsibility, ownership.  That’s what I’m talking about when I mean “engagement”.

During our changing IT career research we found the CIO who was not competing for employees on pay, but competing on career development. He found out what each one wanted to pursue and helped them do it. He gave them assignments knowing that eventually they would leave out of necessity to find more pay, but while they were there they got the opportunities to improve their career. Now THAT’S engagement!

For those of us in IT, these are not academic topics — and that’s why Mike Rollings and I are focused on them in our professional effectiveness research at Gartner.

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Category: career  management  managment  social-media  strategic-planning  work-place  

Tags: career  culture  gearheads  management  strategy  

Jack Santos
Research VP
7 years at Gartner
40 years IT industry

Jack Santos is a Research Vice President with Gartner, part of the Enterprise Architecture and Technology Innovation team within the Gartner for IT Leaders product. He focuses on enterprise architecture and technology trends. Mr. Santos' specific area of research covers individual development, leadership and management practices for enterprise architects, EA innovation, and collaboration approaches. Read Full Bio

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