The Pleasure Principle

“We tend to move toward pleasure and away from pain.”  Sigmund Freud

The idea has been around for a hundred years or so. It’s one of Freud’s lasting contributions to society and our culture. We could dive deeply into the dynamics of psychoanalytical theory to attempt to explain the pleasure principle. But I would rather not. I like simple, straight forward theories; theories that one can easily verify with practical objective experience. My sister-in-law in Reno sent me some homemade fudge with walnuts last week. I have had a piece of it every day since then, looking forward to the nightly treat. When I was six, I touched a hot stove. I only touched it once. I never did it again. When you think about it, it really does work. We tend to move toward pleasure and away from pain. Why do you go to the dentist? Is it to promote health and keep your teeth, or is it to avoid the pain you are feeling in your mouth? Some people only go to a dentist when they have a problem with a tooth. How do we use this insight to manage and motivate workers?

Sigmund Freud taught us about the “Id” and the pleasure principle.

In organizations the idea is to reward good behavior and punish (or correct) bad behavior. What happens is what I call “the three sins”. They are: Sometimes good behavior is punished. You get the work done first, show it to your boss and he gives you an extra assignment to do over the weekend because you are so fast and good. Second example. You don’t do a good job. The boss avoids giving you difficult assignments because she needs good results. So, you can coast through life and your career doing as little as possible. Or, thirdly, performance doesn’t matter, do a great job working like a mad person all year, or be a slacker doing just the minimum. Neither person gets any feedback, and you both get a 1.5% raise as the end of the year. All three are inappropriate consequences. And, unfortunately all too common at work.

Why is it important to understand the pleasure principle? Even though it is thought of as quaint, even a little outdated, the basic idea that we move toward pleasure and away from pain is still a true scientific fact today. And by knowing which basic human motivation is first with you, you can figure out a big part of your life and why you have been doing the things you do. And reflect on your life at work. Are you being recognized for your achievements and coached when you get off track? Or, are any of the three sins at work where you work?