The Lost Art of a Job Well Done

Why it’s happening and what we can do about it

By Liz Bentley

Recently, I was getting frustrated with my children because when I asked them to do so-called “chores” around the house, they would do whatever it took to get it done in the least amount of time regardless of the outcome. When I would go to check on their work, inevitably I would make them come back to do it again. All the while they would be asking what they would receive for what they considered “extra work.” Finally, I realized that in the category of chores, my children had lost sight of the importance and satisfaction of “a job well done.” It seemed to have been lost upon them that the reward in any work and toil was the result of a job well done. The satisfaction purely lies in being proud of your work. And this got me thinking – how often are we as adults shirking our responsibilities at work and in life when the job/task is not our favorite, is not in our strength center, in not in our job description, or is something for which we won’t get any credit. At what point are we just getting through the work to move on to something we like more instead of focusing on doing a job well done. And in doing this, what gets lost?

Amy Wrzesniewski, a professor from Yale, and Barry Schwartz, a professor from Swarthmore, recently wrote an article entitled “The Secret of Effective Motivation” in The New York Times. In it, they cited that we have two prominent motivators: internal motives and instrumental motives. An internal motive for a doctor, for example, is to cure a patient to save her life; the instrumental motive is the doctor wanting to earn a good living. When a person performs a task well, often there may be an internal and instrumental reward; for example, a conscientious student learns and gets a good grade. But the research has proven that only internal motives create long-term success. In a study done with cadets at West Point, they discovered that cadets who entered with only strong internal motives for success (e.g. a desire to be trained as a great leader) did much better years later than cadets with only instrumental motives (get a good job later in life) and surprisingly did better than cadets motivated by both internal and instrumental motives. In other words, I shouldn’t pay my kids for their chores because the internal motivation of a job well done will work more for them in the long run than the instrumental motivation of moolah! Or more seriously, internal motives are a much more important ingredient to success.

Where Does A Job Well Done Get Lost?

There are many reasons we lose sight of ‘a job well done’ but a primary one is overvaluing our contribution and quality of work. In general, we overvalue our strengths and don’t look enough at our weaknesses that may be inhibiting production, process and culture. According to the author Marshall Goldsmith, here are our common pitfalls in overvaluing our contribution to a project. We:

  • Assume credit or recognition for the victories and success that may rightfully belong more to other people.
  • Have an overinflated view of our standing and skills.
  • Conveniently ignore the miscues, cul-de-sacs, and ill-conceived timewasters we have created.
  • Unconsciously overinflate the positive financial impact of our actions because we tend to lighten the hidden and real costs that come with what we do. People can have the tendency to think, “We own the benefits; someone else owns the costs.”

Generational Challenges

In addition to the struggles we all face, I have found that each generation has its own roadblocks to having ‘a job well done’ mentality.

Gen Ys are best known for their desire for instant gratification and immediate results for their hard work. If they do not get these instant results, they feel that the quality of their work does not have to be as good because the company/manager does not appreciate their value. To make matters worse, they often have parents who overvalue their adult children’s strengths and contribution to companies thinking that they should get promoted, be paid more, and be praised. While GenY’s are capable of a job well done, it is sabotaged by a mindset of entitlement.

Gen X is on the move and while they are the strongest generation rising the ranks in companies right now, they are also impatient. They are keeping a running tab of their successes which they easily overinflate and exaggerate as they self-promote their way to the top. In trying to break new ground in what they consider their innovative approach to business, they can spend too much money, over multi-task to the point of losing focus, and work too independently without consulting with authority figures, thereby compromising their ability to complete a job well done.

Baby Boomers have tunnel vision. Experience can only get you so far, and this group overvalues theirs. They think that feedback is for everyone else so process improvement is about fixing the other generations. When they look at their scorecard, they easily leap to the justification that their past successes will automatically predict an ongoing record of brilliance. In their mind, a job well done is something others need to focus on. Their work performance gets compromised when they aren’t changing enough with the times, overvaluing their track record, and not recognizing that their experience isn’t all that’s necessary to help the company stay innovative and relevant.

Traditionalists are coasting into the end zone. They just want to hang on a little longer and feel all the changes in the world are for young people. Adaptability is not a word in their vocabulary. They overvalue their contribution by hanging on to a success model that worked 20 years ago but is outdated. They think they were raised on the model of a job well done and, while some of that is true, their work ethic hasn’t changed enough with the times for them to be fully engaged in a dynamic workplace.

Why Does It Matter To You?

According to a recent Gallup poll, 70% of employees are disengaged at work. As the comedian George Carlin said, “Most people work just hard enough not to get fired and get paid just enough money not to quit.” That is a statistic that is very frustrating to the people in the C-suite or any manager trying to motivate a team. But leaders shouldn’t complain too much because they can be guilty too. As a recent study at the Eccles School of Business at the University of Utah found, the more CEOs get paid, the worse their companies do in the next three years. This is true whether the CEO is at the highest end of the pay spectrum or the lowest. Overconfidence may be the culprit here, according to researchers. When CEOs get paid high amounts, they tend to think less critically about their decisions, avoid disconfirming information, and just think they are right.

No matter your job title or position in life, reinstating the value of a job well done will not only change the quality of your work, it will reengage you. Work that is driven around seeking praise and attention is fleeting. It is not sustainable and always needs to be fed. But in pushing yourself to dig into your work and produce top quality results, you can push yourself to be more focused, creative, thoughtful, collaborative, etc. And the best part is your enjoyment and your satisfaction in the work will increase dramatically. Being engaged at work is your responsibility as is a job well done.

Here’s How To Do It

  • Give Your Work the Right Perspective – With my kids, I realized that we had different ideas on what “a job well done” meant. I very quickly had to explain to them that I was the person who decided whether the job was well done, not them. I told them that as they did every job, they needed to think about whether I would think it was good in the end and do the job to those specifications. It is the same at work. In order for the job to be done well, you have to be fulfilling the needs of a boss, client, etc. For example, we can all write what we think is a great book, but if no one wants to read it then maybe it is not so great.
  • Engage – Dive in head-first! Engaging in your work will give you meaning and put you into flow. Your happiness will go up, you will enjoy it more, it will be more fulfilling and your work will be better. All of this will lead to more satisfaction and better results.
  • Focus on Internal Motives over Instrumental Motives – This will connect back to your big picture vision of your life and career. Look for your internal motives for why the job should be well done. If you are a teacher, maybe you went into your field because you love working with kids and educating them to become better people, not just because you get the summers off. If you are in sales, maybe you sell your product because you think it will change your clients’ companies/lives for the better, not just to be the number one sales rep.
  • Stop Overvaluing Your Contribution – While you maybe very talented and have a successful track record, remember no one is irreplaceable. Put your life in perspective. Take critical stock of what you do well and where you can put more effort in order to raise your own performance.
  • Do It for Yourself First – A job well done is for your benefit first! Doing great work will make you feel great. Additionally it will likely lead to success and a good work environment.
  • Be Thorough – Doing a job well done means doing it until it’s well done. Sometimes that may be hard and take more time. It is easy to cut corners and just get it over with. Be thorough; it will be worth it in the end.

I realize there are many people at work who genuinely feel under appreciated and looked over. There are people who rightly deserve promotions and raises but there are some who don’t and are either still asking for them or disengaging because they feel undervalued. Companies only have so many resources and the market is competitive. No matter the situation, the importance of a job well done can change your entire work and life experience. And it will likely pay big dividends in the end both in personal satisfaction and career success. At the end of the day, the only person you control is yourself.