I have discussed the importance of intrinsic motivation of employees in organizations such as schools, in an essay. This argument is valid for universities and academic institutes too. Rajaram – a colleague of mine – notes that the institution of financial incentives for research publications has led to a disaster. College lecturers in India are compelled to do PhD and its impact on teaching and research is uncertain.

There are a set of unhappy people in academic organizations.  I, as a fellow academic, suggest them to take one of the following three steps.

A. Try to develop an innate interest in, and work towards the purpose of that organization. That work should be such that it adds long-term `value’ for the organization and also the person. Developing appropriate learning materials and courses, conducting and publishing research on the focal themes of the organization, and being part of the practice and policy-analysis on issues of interest are the kind of work that adds value to the academic organization and also to the academics individually. If they take up these tasks, they may do hard work without any supervision and derive joy and happiness.

B. If A is not possible, then they should devote some time (whatever that is feasible with their work and family responsibilities) on something that is exciting to them. For academics, it could be research on an issue that is of great interest to them (even if that is not important for their work in the organization). There can be other avenues too – like writing, travelling, photography, cooking, helping others, and so on. The joy that can be derived through this engagement may enable them to tolerate the monotonousness or unhappiness in their job.

C. If these two options – A and B – are not possible, they should get out of this job. Exploring outside/exit option is important for another reason too. One factor that makes a number of people unhappy is the perception that they are not adequately recognized within the organization. These could be based on formal aspects (like the job position) and informal elements. In any organization, there are different levels, and some people may get leadership positions. These are based on some objective criteria but there would be subjective elements in the decisions of a selection committee or the management regarding the choice of people for these positions. However the veracity of the perception that one is not adequately recognized can never be assessed by merely looking within the organization. One can make a realistic sense of this issue only by comparing with other organizations. Hence exploring a job outside is important to address this concern.

However the life is not as simple as the one implied in this algorithm. The real stumbling block is that some of these unhappy people may not get a job acceptable to them if they want to get out.  Getting an acceptable job is not that easy for many people even with higher levels of qualifications including a PhD. There is an aggravation of the frustration or unhappiness when one is not happy with the current job and cannot get an acceptable job elsewhere.

The option B is not pursued commonly. There can be pressures in the work place but that need not be the only reason. There can be some very difficult conditions at home. However even those people who are not facing such constraints may not pursue B seriously. This can be due to the habit of getting immersed in the (and creating more) mundaneness at home, or the inability to manage one’s own personal affairs. In essence, many people do not pursue something that is exciting to them.

It is difficult for people to pursue option A too. Here the reasons are much more complex in organizations which are not in the business of making money. (On the other hand, it is relatively easy to get an alignment of people who are interested in making money with organizations which are interested in profits, though there are complexities in such organizations too.)

Some people may not like the purpose of the organization for ideological or normative reasons, though they continue to be employees for pecuniary reasons. Or they may have different experiences – educational or otherwise – and these may not encourage them to take the purpose of the organization seriously. Or they may find it difficult to engage with those activities which are valued highly by the organization. There could be others – for example, `intellectual workers’ – who may think that an alignment with the organization’s objective is part of getting co-opted into the agenda of powers that be. Then there could be resistances of different kind. For all these reasons, some people fail to pursue Option A.

There is a connection between the inability to pursue A (and B to some extent) and also the potential difficulties in getting a comparable or better job outside. Doing one’s job well, especially in a manner that creates tangible outputs within an organization is likely to enhance one’s value in the labor market. Or these people may get into a vicious equilibrium. Unable to get out but unable to do something valuable within, and each of these may aggravates the difficulty in doing the other.

This situation can have serious implications for these individuals and organizations. There are people who are frustrated and continue to be in that situation and do not see a way out. Their suffering could be awful. It may not remain in themselves. It may spill over to their spouses and children. It is obvious that the feelings of such people can create a negative vibe within the organization. They may create or get into a discourse of frustrations, and that can be harmful for any organization.

There are others who may not be so unhappy but are confused or unsettled. They may do something without creating a tangible output. They may carry out an activity by taking three years which should have been finished in six months or one year. They may do many things but these may not add up to anything notable. In essence, they do not pursue options A and B well even if they don’t try to get out.

The presence of a number of these two kinds of people can vitiate the atmosphere of an organization, and this is much more so in an academic organization. Before detailing this, let me discuss what I consider an ideal `culture’ of an academic organization. Every organization including academic ones will have a hierarchy and an ownership (which is public or private). An individual academic, though he/she may have a view, cannot have much role in certain decisions (such as what should be the teaching programs to be started by the organization). Similarly he/she may have an idea of his/her own worthiness but his/her position within the organization cannot be decided by him/her and that has to be by a structure which does not include him/her. In my view, an academic should not expect any role in these matters. (If they are unhappy, they should explore the options which are mentioned earlier).

However, academics should have the courage and honesty, to express their views (on issues, individuals, and so on) openly and frankly. Such an open articulation is fine as long as they are driven by social and academic purposes and not by narrower personal interests. One should not be scared of those who hold hierarchical power in expressing views in an academic place. In my view, that is the ideal `culture’ of engagement with the hierarchy in an academic organization.

However those academics who are not following options A and B, and cannot exercise the option C, may not be able to have such an honest engagement with those who hold hierarchical power. A few people may try to appease the hierarchy publicly by being contemptuous in private. They may try to create problems for others through gossips and insidious ways. They will not be in a position to air opinions frankly and directly since their survival depends on the good will of one or other. They may be in a continuous search for such a good-will or patronage.  In academic places, one can see people who spend substantial time for the organization of events even though they are supposed to do something else. Without writing papers on their own, they would try to organize conferences.

In general, people are vulnerable. Their job is at stake. The inability to get a comparable job outside adds to this vulnerability. Some people find it difficult to develop and pursue an innate interest in something that is useful to the organization or that is valuable and joyful to oneself. The real problem is that such an inability need not be due to any intellectual or educational incapacity. Though we economists assume that people are rational, there are many people who find it difficult to make appropriate choices even when they have the required educational and intellectual resources. They end up in suffering or doing arbitrary actions of one or other kind which do not add up or stay as something remarkable.

It is the responsibility of academic organizations and their leaders to encourage and persuade employees to do something that is valuable in a tangible manner to the latter and the organization.