PSYCHOLOGY OF WORK by Thomas Dolgoff. Condensed from Menninger Perspective (Summer 1976), The Menninger Foundation, Topeka, Kansas, 1976

Work is the major means by which people develop and maintain their identity, self-concept, and self-esteem. Our mental image of ourselves, who we think we are --- whether we feel we are OK or not OK --- largely depends upon what other people tell us about ourselves, not just in words, but also in job-related messages about salary, grade classifications, job assignments, status in the organization, and working conditions.


In everything we do or fail to do, we communicate attitudes and values that others take as cues for their own behavior and attitudes. These communicated attitudes and expectations act as self-fulfilling prophecies. The theory of the self-fulfilling prophecy holds that people tend to do what is expected of them and that even a false expectation can evoke behavior that makes it seem true. Our belief that something will happen can actually make it happen.


Once we have developed a particular image of ourselves --- a particular self-concept --- we all go to great efforts to maintain it. We even distort information to maintain our self-image. We see things not as they are but as we think they are. Individuals tend to avoid information contrary to their beliefs and to seek information supporting their views.

The work we do defines and confirms our social roles as well as our self-concept. Each person, of course, has many roles, and the rules for each are carefully defined --- for parent, spouse, friend, enemy, teacher, doctor, housewife, and so forth. Role definitions have many advantages, but they also present many problems, especially when role requirements are ambiguous or contradictory. An individual may imperceptibly become the kind of person the situation requires him or her to be, even at the expense of his or her scruples, values, or convictions.

But the reverse also is true --- our attitudes and personality can affect our roles. For example, if I dislike controversy, I am not likely to become a soldier or a lawyer.

Work is crucially important in this context because it can shape personality. An individual tends to become the kind of person the situation demands. When a worker becomes a middle manager, he or she finds his or her attitude toward top supervisors changing just as a former supervisor finds his or her attitude toward the union changing when he or she becomes a union shop steward.

In other words, while attitudes can affect behavior, it also is true that behavior can affect attitudes, an idea summed up in the maxim that it is easier to act your way into a new way of thinking than it is to think your way into a new way of acting!


The most common view of motivation is that human beings are rational animals motivated by money and other material rewards. And for many people in many situations, money is important. However, some people place greater value on social approval, prestige, and status than on money.

This view of man as a social animal emphasizes that man is governed more by the informal organization's logic of sentiments than by the formal organization's logic of efficiency. More recently, behavioral scientists have found that high employee morale does not necessarily result in greater productivity and that man's motivations are vastly more complex than can be explained in economic or social terms alone. Many theorists and managers now believe that the psychological contract implies that effort be exchanged not only for money and social contact but for self-esteem, autonomy, and self-actualization.

These different views of man and his motivations may be summed up by the well-known anecdote about the man who asked three stonecutters what they were doing. One said, "I am making a living," the second, "I am trying to be the best stonecutter in the world," and the third, "I am building a cathedral!"

The first stonecutter is the economic man, the second is the social man, and the cathedral builder is the "self-actualizing man" who finds his satisfactions in the work itself and its larger meaning rather than in any external or accidental rewards.

None of these views are entirely correct or entirely false. Different people want and need different things in different situations at different times! In the job situation, the worker may be seeking satisfactions for his material needs, his social needs, his needs for self-esteem, respect from others, and self-fulfillment.

But work also is a major means of dealing with our fears, worries, and anxieties. Work enables all of us to "KEEP A LID ON THE ID!" It acts as a pressure release. Because work binds the individual to reality, the loss of work can become a loss of structure upon which our physical health and psychological balance depend.

Obviously, demotion, meaningless, boring, or dead-ends jobs, transfers to lower-status jobs, less challenging assignments, or early retirement all tend to confirm the individual's sense of insecurity and inadequacy. But we often fail to realize that promotion to higher levels of responsibility, reward, and status can have equally disastrous effects.

These promotions usually occur during the age range of 38 to 45 when many persons have to deal with many disturbing psychological and social problems characteristic of the middle years: questions about their competence, their health, their changing relationships with spouses and children, a reassessment of their values, and a growing concern about what life is all about. It is difficult enough, in a stable condition, to keep one's private life from spilling over into one's public life and vice versa; it is especially difficult at a time of tormenting personal and social change.

Every change, even a change for the better, is experienced psychologically as a loss. In promotions, the price for higher authority and status often is the loss of friendships as well as the loss of psychological support of one's peers, increased loneliness because there are fewer people in which one can confide, and increased uncertainty because of the new and often different kinds of problems to be solved. The higher one rises in the hierarchy, the more ambiguous are the criteria for evaluating effectiveness since accomplishments are the result of joint efforts and there is a time lag between effort and result. These uncertainties increase anxiety.

Executives especially struggle with strong feelings that they dare not express: fear of failure and guilt of success. The fear of failure stems from the perfectionistic "all-or-nothing" attitudes that are often a condition of success in our culture; the guilt of success reflects the hidden feelings of unworthiness or inadequacy that many individuals carry deep inside themselves from earlier stages of development and that are reactivated and reinforced in the transition.

The higher the individual rises in the hierarchy, the more circumspect he or she must become and the more carefully he or she must conceal and control his or her aggressive drives. In fact, in many places an employee won't be promoted unless he or she can "get along." The individual's new subordinates often endow him or her with strengths and virtues he or she does not possess. Actually, the more uncertain and anxious they are in their roles, the more they may idealize the new leader so they can find in him the strengths, security, and wisdom they lack!


Although changes in work roles can cause difficulties, the loss of work can be a disaster. Loss of work is both a cause and an effect of loss of dignity. The loss of work can undermine the very structure of personality.

Thus it is important that we look at ourselves honestly and ask ourselves what we really believe because our beliefs and attitudes lead us to behave in certain ways that may have serious unintended consequences for ourselves, our colleagues, and our organizations.


    The Author, Thomas Dolgoff, is a management consultant at the Menninger Foundation's Center for Applied Behavioral Sciences.

Go to: Creativity and Distress at Work
Go to: Motivation and Burnout at Work
Go to: Leadership and Bureaucracy at Work
Go to: Success and Fear of Failure at Work
Go to: Keyword Glossary of Leadership Ideas
Go to: Interactive Index