Why do people feel unmotivated at their jobs? Why might they decide to quit and look for work elsewhere? Because they don't enjoy those jobs. That simple insight comes from Lindsay McGregor, consultant and co-author of the bestseller Primed to Perform

That employees should enjoy doing their jobs as a vital part of keeping them engaged, motivated--and around--seems obvious when you think about it. And yet few business leaders or management consultants ever do think about it. Instead, they focus their attention on things like mission, vision, and purpose as ways to motivate and engage employees. That focus led inevitably to this merciless parody in the series Silicon Valley.

And it's all wrong, McGregor said in a virtual presentation for Zoom. "[Our research] found that play is about twice as powerful when it comes to adaptive performance than purpose," she said. "That's shocking because we all talk a lot about purpose but almost nobody's worried about play at work."

To be clear, when McGregor uses the term "play," she's not talking about having Ping-Pong tables in the office or turning work into a game. Instead, she says, think about your favorite hobbies. If you spend your time sailing or hiking or doing crafts, "you're not doing those things because you're famous for them," she said. "You're not doing them because you're paid for them. You're doing them because you love the work." For example, she said, a teacher motivated by play might really love coming up with a new way to explain a math concept to a student who is struggling to understand it. A teacher motivated by purpose might love seeing that look of understanding finally appear on the student's face.

Turning work into play

So how do you put more play into your employees' workday--or your own? It's not as hard as you might think, McGregor says. Think about a time when you've been in "flow"--so engrossed in something you were working on that you forgot what time it was and lost all desire to go get yourself a cup of coffee or check your social media. That's what McGregor calls play.

"Play simply means curiosity. When are you curious, and when do you feel like you're in the zone?" she said in an interview on LinkedIn. "You don't want to set the bar so high that you feel like it's never possible. That's why I think of play as, 'When are you curious? When are you learning?'"

In the interview, McGregor used an example from her book about a young man who was working at Starbucks while going to college. He was just there to earn money until he got his degree, so he felt very unmotivated at his job. Then one day, his manager sat him down and said, "My goal for this Starbucks is that we are the hub for our community. That anybody of any race, any gender, any ethnicity, any background, can come here and feel welcome and like they're home, and like they're safe."

This one conversation made a huge difference, because that kind of inclusivity was very important to the college student and he badly wanted to learn those skills and how to create that same feeling of safety. Suddenly, his curiosity was engaged and the play quotient of his job went way up.

If you want your own employees to be engaged in their jobs, especially those who are new to the working world, spend some time with them, McGregor advises. Ask them what parts of their jobs make them feel curious. You may be surprised how easy it is for them--and you--to find the play inside of work.