What gives you meaning and motivation

Job satisfaction: "Meaning is the best source of motivation ever"


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People who identify with their employer are more likely to work overtime, get more involved and change jobs less often. Studies have confirmed this for many years. But under what circumstances do employees particularly identify with their employer? The work psychologist Theo Wehner explains why bonuses and good pay are no longer enough to retain employees in the long term.

ZEIT ONLINE: Mr. Wehner, why are we working at all? Is it really only because we have to make money?

Theo Wehner: That's the primary reason, yes. But the reason why some people like to go to work is because it allows them to show how good they are and to be valued. When people identify with the content of their job and the company they work for, they are most satisfied. If there was no financial pressure, identification with the company would play an even greater role in the choice of a job.

ZEIT ONLINE: Does that mean that identification with the job is a luxury that only high earners can afford?

Theo Wehner,

Born in Fulda in 1949, is Professor of Work and Organizational Psychology at the Center for Organizational and Work Sciences at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH).

Wehner: No, identification with the job plays an important role across all levels. Even before the current generation. In the past, extrinsic values, such as status, career or salary, were more important in identification. If you've worked at Daimler, you've been a winner. Daimler was a successful company, so you were considered successful yourself. The employer financed the terraced house and the annual car for you, and that's why you enjoyed working there. The demands on companies have changed.


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ZEIT ONLINE: What do people expect from their employer today?

Wehner: Today we expect meaningful tasks, creative freedom and corporate goals that are oriented towards the common good from a company. The proportion of companies that pursue a socio-ecological added value with their work - whether in the form of services or the production of goods - is growing rapidly. Many people today want to work and shop for a company that thinks ecologically and humanely. At a company where neither employees nor suppliers or customers are ripped off. This does not mean that money and status are now obsolete as a source of motivation. But many people are willing to lose money and status if they see their job as meaningful.

ZEIT ONLINE: In other words, employees identify when they see a purpose in their own work?

Wehner: Exactly, the question "Would you forego wages or status for meaningful tasks?" More than two thirds of the respondents in various studies from Europe and the USA agree. Incidentally, this is the same in management as in the lower levels and in medium-sized companies as well as in large companies. If the tasks and the interaction seem meaningful, that is more important than a bonus or a slightly increased status. And that's a new phenomenon. We have been observing this attitude for a long time in the creative industry and in the field of knowledge work. But even behind the assembly line, people now want to be able to say: "I can stand behind this employer and this team." In the 1980s I participated in many internal employee surveys in large industrial companies, at Daimler, the Dasa aviation group in Hamburg, or on behalf of insurance companies in Switzerland. When I asked workers there about their satisfaction, the answer often came: "This is my job here and I live somewhere else."

ZEIT ONLINE: It's not that easy to find fulfilling, challenging and creative work that also serves the general public.

Wehner: Yes, that is by no means successful for everyone who has the desire. Even today there are still a number of jobs that are unreasonable. I call them bullshit jobs: people who put shelves or fill out Excel spreadsheets and don't know what for. In my opinion, such tasks should be done by machines. The people affected should be given further qualifications to experience other forms of work. That is why I support the idea of ​​an unconditional basic income. Because the less money has to be used as motivation for work, the sooner people can choose a job that makes sense to them. If you decouple work from money, as in voluntary work, then people only take on tasks that appear meaningful to them. And sense is the best source of motivation anywhere.