What is so Exciting about Exciting Jobs?—The Psychology and Management of Excitement at Work and Elsewhere

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Is your job exciting or do you wish it were? If only there were some kind of formula or recipe for experiencing, creating or managing excitement that could be identified. Then, it might be easier to predict, explain, control or—even better—to create and manage it, at work and in the rest of your life.

When it comes to hiring, employer promises and predictions of an “exciting” job or project are not always reliable: Exuberant, overstated job ads and management comments quite frequently mention excitement—before, during and after a job has been filled.

Of course, employers and recruiters want job applicants to believe that the jobs they dangle represent “exciting opportunities” with “exciting prospects for advancement” and access to some of the “most exciting cutting-edge technologies” and “exciting ideas”—especially when we live in such “exciting times”.

The recruiting overstatement can so extreme that I wouldn’t be surprised to see a job posting like this:  “Afraid to try bungee jumping, celebrity stalking, alligator wrestling or white-water rafting? But you crave excitement? Consider a career in aluminum-siding sales!” But, what exactly is “excitement” and the formula for it, if there is one (or more)?

It is equally important to ask

  • Must job (and other) excitement be only temporary?
  • Will repetition necessary kill excitement?
  • Why are some things exciting only to some?
  • What causes excitement to be overrated (or underrated) as a potential and as an experience?
  • How relevant or essential is excitement to work and work-life balance? (These questions will be examined in a later article.)

Before examining the essence, forms, implications and subtleties of excitement—in particular, workplace excitement, it is important to choose the framework within which the analysis is best framed.

My bet is on the sciences of physiology, psychology, sociobiology, existential philosophy, game and probability theory and lots of others that end in “-ology”,“-ics” or some such suffix. But, for now, let’s keep things simple—yet insightful. (I may draw upon these sciences, but promise not to be painfully technical.)

What follows includes three models that explain much, but not all, of our excitability and how to utilize it ( with others to be presented in that subsequent article).

The Anatomy of Excitement: When Odds, Payoffs and Urges Surge

Rolling up our minds’ sleeves, let’s get started on the exciting task of figuring out exactly what excitement is (which immediately raises the question of what would make this undertaken task exciting) and what its most fundamental types are.

Equipped with that understanding, companies, recruiters and employees may be able to more effectively and realistically define, market and manage their job excitement expectations, promises and predictions.

Although we very loosely call all of the following “exciting”—a promotion, the Super Bowl, paint ball, a spike in sales, an African safari, getting hired, sexy lingerie, roller-coaster rides, breakfast at Tiffany’s, weddings and the prospect of real world peace, is it not likely that this one-size-fits-all characterization of these as “exciting” conceals more than it reveals?

Intuitively, there are grounds for thinking that maybe “excitement”, like “love”, exists  not only in utterly different forms, but through utterly different processes, e.g., psychological, physiological and cultural.

This was the implied point of then-radical Jerry Rubin’s 60s Yippie lament, “How can I tell you I love you after hearing cars love Shell?” Cars and love are unlikely to be exciting in the same sense and therefore not in the same way—unless you love loving your car.

Exciting situations, prospects, experiences, etc., are likely to have at least one and probably more than one of the characteristics to be discussed here (and in this article’s sequel).

As you review them, try to interpret your own workplace or other excitement in terms of these concepts—and then apply them. Below, practical applications are provided for each:

  • Lottery-type excitement—excitement as perception of and response to a sudden increase in favorable odds (probabilities): Strange and improbable as it may sound, this kind of excitement can be classified as “mathematical excitement”. As winning lottery numbers are read out or the roulette ball slows, suspense and excitement build.

That’s because the mathematical probability of winning is soaring for the eventual winners. Such sudden “good news” changes in probability drive and define the experience of excitement in many instances.  From an “excitement management” standpoint, what is important to note is this kind of excitement is driven by a change in the odds, not by a change in the payoffs. The latter is an entirely different kind of excitement requiring different workplace creation and management strategies.

For example, keeping a newly-hired employee excited is a challenge that can be met by modifying job-related payoffs, rather than job-related probabilities, as the following application shows.

Workplace Application: Notifying a candidate that (s)he is now an employee is guaranteed to create this kind of probability-based mathematical excitement, but probably primarily as a short-term response. A smart employer will not assume that the evident excitement a new employee displays upon being hired will in any way prove that (s)he is the “excitable” type who will readily find the job exciting.

It may be that this employee, like a casino winner, becomes excited only when some important probability changes (for the better) suddenly, or when job-related payoffs do, e.g., in the form of an unexpected raise.  If after hiring, key job-probabilities and payoffs “stagnate”, the excitement may vanish, even if both the probabilities and size of job payoffs remain high. At that point, a smart manager will try to find new strategies and ways to keep the job exciting— for example, the next one.

  • Poker-style excitement—excitement as a perception of and response to a sudden increase in highly probable payoffs. You are holding a hand with four aces or a royal flush, and are virtually guaranteed to win the pot. The astronomically high probability of winning already has you excited, but as the bidding proceeds and the antes are upped, you experience a second kind of excitement: “payoff excitement”—as the expected payoff for your hand soars (while the odds remain pretty much unchanged, especially if you have reason to believe the other players are bluffing).

Workplace Application: As part of the employment contract, a clause is inserted guaranteeing a pay raise after three months. Here, a probability surge has nothing to do with the excitement, since the raise is guaranteed (which mean a 100% chance of getting it). The excitement is in the anticipation and realization of the payoff surge.

  • Lab-Rat Arousal—excitement as “drive activation” paired with expected or delivered “drive reduction”: In the casino case, the excitement is aroused by a perception of dramatically changing odds of winning (that have suddenly soared). In the poker case, the excitement is caused by a perceived increase in the size of the imminent payoff. However, in one kind of laboratory situation, it isn’t the odds or the payoffs that change: It’s the state of arousal upon presentation of an exciting stimulus. This model also covers the “fear-relief” exhilaration and excitement experience pattern at the heart of the thrills of roller-coaster rides.

On that kind of ride, the drive activated is the urge to escape or end the harrowing experience, blended with reduction of that fear at tamer points along the route and at the end. Fundamentally, this kind of excitement illustrates the well-documented fact that relief of pain or anxiety is not only pleasant, but that also the combination of fear and relief can be experienced as exciting.

Then there is the opposite anxiety-free case: Giving someone who is not  already stuffed  a whiff of your pizza (“drive activation”), then a slice of it (“drive reduction”), is a sure-fire way to excite his or her taste buds and sense of smell. This is typical dog and rat excitement: Show the dog a stick (arousal); throw it (reward); put cheese at the end of a maze; let the rat’s nose do the rest (and notice how unlike a lottery or poker game this is, except for those who can “smell” winning numbers and poker hands).

This lab process is different from that operating in the probability-driven lottery case and the payoff-driven poker hand, because in this case, in the dog’s or rat’s situation, there is no prior recognized or estimated probability of a payoff or pre-existing arousal related to getting what is desired. Here, the excitement is created purely by sudden arousal of a drive, followed by satisfaction of it. Without the satisfaction, the excitement, although real, would quickly or eventually morph into frustration that can nullify the entire exercise and strategy.

Workplace Application:  The department manager announces a huge bonus for anyone whose quarterly sales exceed the team’s average for the next three months. Effectively, this triggers a state of arousal in all the bonus-minded staff, comparable to lab drooling. If this arousal is followed by either anticipations or the achievement of success, the level of individual or group excitement will be high and sustained.

Notice how different this is from lottery-probability and poker-payoff excitement. By offering the bonus, the manager is dangling an exciting drive-activating arousal stimulus. For those whose sales flag or just simply can’t compete, that excitement will not be sustained, and will soon deteriorate into frustration.  Hence, from a managerial standpoint, to sustain this kind of lab excitement, it is necessary to couple drive activation with eventual drive reduction through satisfaction, to prevent drive extinction and frustration through non-reward.

This suggests it may be wise to avoid zero-sum reward schemes as a means of maintaining employee morale and excitement—schemes in which for every winner there must be one or many losers. A much better rewards program would feature bonuses for all if more than 50% of the sales team beat the group’s previous quarterly sales record, as a group total (despite creating the risk of resentment on the part of any staff toward others whose next-quarter poor sales may push the percentage below 50%).

A manager who crafts programs and policies that respect these parameters and forms of excitement will increase both his odds of keeping his staff excited (and therefore engaged) and of increasing his payoffs.  There is one remaining challenge, however.

To (a)rouse him to the task.

By Michael Moffa