When Work is "Who I Am."

Motivating Individuals in Team Based Environments.

Posted Apr 01, 2017

Clotaire Rapaille is a French psychologist (Ph.D., Paris-Sorbonne University) has homes in the United States and France.   He conducts research into what he defines as “cultural archetypes” based on traditional learning theories of imprinting. (2007).

Imprinting refers to powerful, permanent learning based on the pairing of cognitive stimuli with powerful emotional experiences. Below is an example of imprinting:

If a mother tells a daughter, “Do not touch a hot stove” it is merely words.  If the daughter touches the stove and immediately experiences pain in her hand, she learns a powerful lesson that lasts a lifetime. 

The American Code for Work:

Dr. Rapaille’s research examines the cultural imprinting of the word “work” in France and then contrasts it with the United States.  For the French, work associated with keeping France strong or supporting God’s work has positive value.  All other work has different levels of association with the word “vulgar.”    For this reason, when French strangers meet at social gatherings, the question “tell me about yourself?” is likely to elicit non-work responses.

It is different in the United States.

In the United States, the emotional imprinting of the word “work” is “who I am.” 

When U.S. strangers meet at social gatherings, the response to “tell me about yourself?” is likely to be a job title.

The American Code for Money.

Since “work” is “who I am,” American attitude towards money is complex.

Americans esteem people who rose from relatively ordinary beginnings to achieve great wealth through hard word.  This would include people like Bill Gates, Oprah Winfield, Warren Buffett, and Steve Jobs. 

However people do not value people with money just because they have money.

People who have great wealth through inheritance are not admired.  People who are wealthy because they put their money into a passive instrument like an ETF tracks the S&P500 are not admired.  People who achieve great wealth by winning the lottery are not admired.

In the United States, money is objective proof of one’s success through hard work.

Hygiene and Motivation Factors in Compensation of Professionals

How do these ideas translate into motivating U.S. professionals?

One of our clients is a nonprofit with limited financial resources.  It generally provides an across-the-board common percentage salary increase to all employees to take into account cost of living increases.

How well will this work if work is “Who I am” and money is “proof of my success through hard work?”

Psychologist Frederick Herzberg and his colleagues (2011) would describe this approach to compensation as a “hygiene” compensation system.  According to Herzberg, compensation can either be truly motivating or it can simply be hygiene.

A motivation-based compensation system recognizes the individual and provides an incentive to remain and to work even harder in the future.

A hygiene-based compensation system like across the board salary increases is a bit like having air conditioning in an office located in Houston, Texas on August 1. 

Having proper air conditioning in a hot, humid environment is a form of non-cash compensation for employees.  If the air conditioner is working properly, nobody notices.  If the air conditioner is not working on August 1, nobody will talk about anything else.  It is a hygiene factor.

If the cost of living increases 2% and you fail to provide a 2% increase to every employee, there is nothing else people will discuss!  And if you provide a 2% increase to every employee, nobody is motivated next week.  This is a classic hygiene approach to compensation.

Team Compensation:

Now let's examine hygiene versus motivation compensation when looking at work teams.

When everyone in the team receives the same compensation, it is a hygiene factor.  You avoid demotivation at the price of failing to motivate your team.

If work is “Who You Are,” and money is one way to keep score, then there needs to be some way to achieve individual recognition in team-based environments.

The U.S. military grasped this compensation dilemma years ago. 

It has a cash compensation program that is mostly hygiene in nature.  People won’t be motivated by their salary checks or the increase in year-over-year compensation.  But the military is clever about providing non-cash compensation to signal individual excellence.  This would include medals or commendations and informal squad meetings at a local tavern were the leader toasts the excellence of a key member of the squad.

Civilian companies might do well to look at how the military uses formal and informal compensation systems in team-based environments.

Team Based Versus Individual Recognition:

We consult with physician practices where the culture is shifting from the individual physician being the center of the enterprise to the individual physician to being an important member of a total care team.

The problem is that many of our physicians’ self definition do not embrace team membership.

The compensation systems in this physician practice group requires an appreciation of the reality that complex work requires team effort and yet individuals crave unique affirmation. 

You can’t have outstanding teams without stand-out individuals. 

What does your company do to identify and to single out its outstanding team members?

Words and Authority Matter.

Since “work” is “who I am,” words and authority matter. 

At the Ritz Carlton, people who work there are not referred to as "employees." They are defined as “ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen.”  

And they have been known to politely eject customers who were not behaving as "ladies and gentlemen" with "ladies and gentlemen" Ritz Carlton employees!

 Notice how clear the company is in defining “This is Who You Are.” 

The Ritz Carlton gives its “ladies and gentlemen” the spending authority (within clearly defined limits) to solve customer problems on the spot:

If a customer complains about not being able to sleep well because of noise coming from a nearby room, the clerk at the check in counter has the authority to do more than apologize.  The clerk can void charges for that guest’s bad night and issue an order for a free night’s stay in the future.  No need to go to one’s supervisor. 

Managing specific “words” with authority to act become important in a culture where “work” is “who you are.”  Ritz Carlton does an outstanding job of this.

And the Ritz Carlton is a big, global organization. 

Looking at the Ritz Carlton as an example for managing professionals is a useful exercise since so many corporate leaders view employees from a mechanical perspective: as a company grows, human beings are going to be replaced with digital-based technology and jobs will be simplified so that human beings can easily be ”swapped out” and replaced.

When work is defined as “Who I am,” that attitude compels employees to redefine their core selves in ways other than paid employment if they intend to remain with the company.  And if work is "Who I am," a boss who thinks of me as an item that can easily be "swapped" in or out is a signal that I ought to be working somewhere else.

In the end, it will appear that management has saved costs.  But in another line item in the budget, it will spend millions of dollars on employee engagement programs and recruitment.  

If work is “Who I am,” then can work and compensation systems be designed to give people a sense of pride and miss

Source: Peggy Lachmann-Anke:/pixabay


Disney calls its employees “cast members”  Each day you show up for work as a member of a team whose mission is to provide Disney customers with a wonderful experience. 

Perhaps hospitals ought to stop calling people who work at the institution “employees” and start calling them “life savers.”


Herzberg, F., Mausner, B., & Snyderman, B. B. (2011). The motivation to work (Vol. 1). Transaction publishers.

Rapaille, C. (2007). The culture code: An ingenious way to understand why people around the world live and buy as they do. Crown Business.