What makes you stay in a job? – Choice Theory

In the previous post, I shared about just how money cannot bring us true happiness. This is especially true when our basic needs are fulfilled, there is little return when we go beyond our threshold of needs.  Since happiness can’t be bought but only created, ideally we should spend every waking hour to create happiness. It shouldn’t be difficult to figure out where do we exactly spend most of our time in? – Our Job, at least 8 hours a day, 5 days per week.

To put it simply, to achieve everyday happiness, we should be in a job that allows us to create happiness.  But the sad part is that data seemed to show that most employees in Singapore are not happy with their job.

Just How Unhappy Employees in Singapore are?

I believe we will somehow know of someone who is unhappy with their present job. Some of them display their unhappiness more explicitly, through lamenting sessions, whereas some others drop subtle clues, like lack of motivation and the “drag the feet” attitude.

The result from the recent National Workplace Happiness Survey 2014 stressed on this. With a new definition of happiness created, known as ‘under happy’, Singapore employees are regard to be ‘under happy’ with an average score of 59, out of 100.  One interesting finding was that it reported that among 28 factors happiness drivers, salary and benefits ranked to have the least impact on employee’s happiness. This only further emphasised that you cannot buy happiness with money. In fact, I believe that once a person attained a certain threshold in their salary level, any further increment would only result in a marginal increase in his/her happiness index.

source: ST Graphics

Happiness Index of Different Industries. Source: ST Graphics

Clearly, the results show there can be improvements made to make Singapore’s workplace a happier environment to work in. To quote what Erman Tan, president of the Singapore Human Resources Institute, “From the HR perspective, there is more that the employer can do to let our employees feel a sense of empowerment.”

The question is then what exactly is the empowerment that an organisation can provide to their employees?  Do the managers know what the employees want? Or do the employees know what they really want from their job?

To discuss on this topic, I would like to introduce you to Dr William Glasser’s Choice Theory.

Dr. William Glasser’s Choice Theory

Choice theory revolves around the principle that we are motivated internally (intrinsic influence) rather than externally (extrinsic influence). The theory explained what drives our behaviour is developed by what most important to us. All of us have a quality world which we would like things to be and is conceived out based on the following 5 basic needs:

  1. The need to survive (Survival)
  2. The need to belong (Sense of belonging)
  3. The need to gain power (Power)
  4. The need to be free (Freedom)
  5. The need to have fun. (Fun seeking)

Applying Choice Theory To Explain Work Motivation

In terms of applying choice to work, I would say the first point simply refer to the need to put food on the table. But this alone doesn’t make us stay onto our job as any decent job should be able to meet this need. So what make us stay and most importantly motivate us to excel in our job?

This would have to be for points 2 to 4,  which describe the desire to feed our physiological needs.  As we human are emotionally driven, these 4 needs are so powerful that if these needs are met, we tend to more driven and motivated. An ideal organisation should able to fulfil all these.

For sense of belonging, we need to meet our need of establishing meaning relationship. This relationship can be in the form of one to one or with groups at work.  A good organisation will provide opportunities for employees to interact and reduce undesirable competition.

For power, it is not always related to ranks and authority in workplace. On the contrary, we all desire power in certain way. First of all, Glasser’s definition of power doesn’t limit to authority with the ability to command others but it extends to a sense of achievement and gaining personal competence that you can called yourself as professional. Therefore, a good organisation should always provide opportunities for employees to challenge themselves with adequate support.

For freedom, is about the degree of autonomy. It is the idea that one can ‘design’ his own work that give employees a sense of freedom to make choices. Such choices can be in the form of flexible working hours/scheme, career development and a simpler organisation hierarchy system.

Lastly, for the need to have fun, is about how one’s enjoy their job. Everyone will have things they like to do. I would avoid using the word passion as it is a huge topic itself. Organisation can provide the fun in work by creating meaningful role/ work scope for employees. Employees, on the other hand, will need to understand the rationale of the task given, so to brace themselves with the challenge.  Don’t you agree that it is fun to be able to accomplish tasks that are challenging and meaningful?


What Choice Theory can do to help managers, is to explain to managers that money is not the only carrot they could use to motivate staff. Despite our uniqueness, everyone tends to seek to attain at least one of the needs discussed in Choice Theory. Organisation and managers should be aware that there are various way they could employ when discussing motivation.

Of course, with this short blog entry, I won’t be able to cover everything about Choice Theory. If you are interested, you can pick up this book from your nearest bookstore to understand it better. 🙂