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Taking the Work Out of Work--by Adding Higher Purpose

by Ross Smith on March 29, 2011
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Taking the Work Out of Work--by Adding Higher Purpose


The last post, The Power of Intrinsic Motivation, began with a great John Wooden quote:

"It is amazing how much can be accomplished if no one cares who gets the credit."

How small and insignificant do we feel when, in between two trivial postings here, millions of lives have been dramatically changed, thousands of lives have been lost, and the earth has literally shifted its axis by 6.5 inches and the length of a day is now shorter by 1.26 microseconds.

The tragedy in Japan has impacted all of us--and serves as a painful reminder of many earlier (and still unresolved) tragedies in Haiti, Chile, Katrina, New Zealand, and around the world. These disasters command the headlines, tap in to our sense of civic responsibility, and summon us to help our neighbors in need.

When I began my role as a Moonshot Guide, my attention was focused on how to bring play, fun, and laughter to the workplace. "Take the Work out of Work" meant making work feel more like play and exploring how to "gamify" work. But these last few weeks have provided a great education in the power of altruism, charity, and volunteerism as a vital component of Management 2.0.

The quality of our working lives depends on a basic human drive--we feel good when we care for one another. As articulated in the moonshot description:

"In the future, the most successful organizations will be the ones that have figured out how to blur the boundary between vocation and avocation. Among other things, this will require organizations to better align personal interests and professional responsibilities, to take the drudgery out of work, and to grant employees more control over what they work on."

The tragedies in Japan have illustrated the importance of organizations that can work toward greater, more important, humanistic or spiritual causes.

I spent some time at Farestart in Seattle, a program dedicated to training (and finding jobs for) homeless and disadvantaged people in the food service industry, and heard a great speech on the power of hope. You've probably heard the phrase, "hope is not a strategy," but sometimes, it may be the only one available. As Viktor Frankl wrote in Man's Search for Meaning,

". . . remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms--to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way."

Optimism comes standard in humans. Economists from Duke University offer supporting testimony:

"A belief that good things will happen in our lives appears to be hard-wired in our brains. The influence of optimism on human behavior is so pervasive that it must have survival value, researchers speculate, and may give us the ability to act in the face of uncertain odds."

In Megatrends 2010, Patricia Aburdene talks about the rise of "conscious capitalism":

"What marks you as a grassroots leader is the commitment that ignites the potent mixture of inner power and action. Stand in your truth and act on your values right here, right now, and touch the people around you. Your job is to flood the system with the medicine of spiritual values and fresh, clear consciousness. And that is completely within your power."

I'm sure most readers are familiar with Abraham Maslow and his hierarchy of needs. (If not, check it out.) As employees, we all strive towards self-actualization, but shouldn't managers create opportunities for their teams and organizations to self-actualize? Shouldn't managers design and conceive possibilities, even temporarily, for people to witness the view from the top of Maslow's pyramid? The capacity to help another less fortunate is a tremendous strength. Jackie Robinson, number 42 on the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team, said "A life isn't significant except for its impact on other lives."

Could "taking the work out of work" actually mean adding purpose to the work? If so, perhaps Management 2.0 could create and build organizational cultures that support altruism, charity, and a greater purpose for its members. Gary Hamel comments in his post here on the MIX, The Hole in the Soul of Business, that "a noble purpose inspires sacrifice, stimulates innovation and encourages perseverance. In so doing, it transforms great talent into exceptional accomplishment."

In an unscientific experiment following the earthquake in Japan, I visited the websites for Fortune's "Best Companies to Work For"--the Top 10 from 2006, and then the Top 10 from 2010. There was only one company from 2006 which had a home page reference to helping Japan. Coincidently, there was only one company on the 2010 list who was on the 2006 list. Coincidence or not--it was indeed the same company.

Creating an organization in which individuals can make progress toward broader life goals, including helping others and leaving a legacy, is an important component of Management 2.0. The research indicates that demographic and socio-economic shifts are leading us to a world where employees are more willing and able to change organizations, industries, and disciplines. As Boomers and Gen X employees get older, they are less likely to retire, in the traditional sense, but instead, move to jobs that offer benefits beyond a paycheck. Millennials, entering the workforce, have a lot more information available to them about the ethical and moral values of the companies they choose to work for. Since "world is flat" global competition has driven up the quality of education for those entering the workforce, hiring and retaining the best and brightest now requires offering much more than a big paycheck.

Anne Frank said, "How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world." Organizations that can offer a platform for employees to change the world will be better suited to hire those candidates that are actually capable of doing it. And, more often than not, changing the world is not a side job-- it's tightly integrated in to the work we do. As evidenced by the outpouring of corporate volunteers to help Japan, Haiti, Katrina, and other recent tragedies, employees want to hold employers accountable for more than a paycheck.

In the MiX Hack Ignite the Light, Bryan de Lottinville suggests that employees bring their "whole selves" to work and they expect the businesses that they choose as employers or suppliers to not only help them give back, but to give them a meaningful seat at the table in so doing.

"Motivation 3.0 doesn't reject profits, but it places equal emphasis on purpose maximization." (Daniel Pink, Drive)

The School of Life details how in the early in the morning on the fifth of February AD 62, a gigantic earthquake rippled beneath the Roman province of Campania and in seconds, killed thousands of unsuspecting inhabitants. Large sections of Pompeii collapsed on top of people in their beds. Attempts to rescue them were stopped when fires broke out. The survivors were left destitute in only the soot-covered clothes they stood in, their noble buildings shattered into rubble. There was horror, disbelief and anger throughout the Empire. How could the Romans, the world's mightiest, most technologically sophisticated people, who had built aqueducts and tamed barbarian hordes, be so vulnerable to the insane tempers of nature?

As humans, we have little control over the challenges we face each day. From natural disasters or competitive threats to geopolitical battles or even an angry co-worker, it's hard to predict what will happen to us. What we can control, however, is our willingness to collaborate and work together to solve big problems. The complexities brought about by global connectivity and broad-based information-sharing are unfathomable, but at the same time, offer great opportunities.

Humans are here to help one another. As a society, we feel better ourselves when we can help others. And, most importantly, when others run afoul of Fortune, we feel compelled to rally behind them and offer our assistance. Social Responsibility Ab Initio, a Mix Hack by Erkin Tunca, suggests that "companies should consider designing businesses that are humanistic, long term investing, energy efficient, and non-polluting." And "focus on what is good for the society and how their impact would bring the highest profits without contributing to social or environmental problems."

"When you cease to make a contribution, you begin to die." (Eleanor Roosevelt)

So, when it comes to the workplace, creating an organization that can aspire to a higher sense of purpose appears to be a viable way to approach Management 2.0. Empowering employees and giving them freedom to pursue grand dreams. In Good to Great, Jim Collins and Jerry Porras introduce the concept of Big Harry Audacious Goals (BHAGs):

A true BHAG is clear and compelling, serves as unifying focal point of effort, and acts as a clear catalyst for team spirit. It has a clear finish line, so the organization can know when it has achieved the goal; people like to shoot for finish lines.

Certainly, helping others in need would meet the definition above. So perhaps, organization cultures that can support employees to help others really do "take the work out of work." These groups can rally together behind a greater cause. As Mihaly Csikszentmihaly writes, "One cannot lead a life that is truly excellent without feeling that one belongs to something greater and more permanent than oneself."

Let's conclude with where we began: "It is amazing how much can be accomplished if no one cares who gets the credit."

No one takes time off work to help others in return for an extrinsic reward.We don't donate money to disaster relief to get a promotion.We don't take time to volunteer at a soup kitchen for a year-end bonus. Compassion and empathy are natural, human behaviors. We are social beings, and helping others is a natural instinct. Organizations and teams that facilitate care for others--in and outside the workplace-- will be the most successful in the future. As we think how we can revolutionize management and build more successful organizations, it's critical to think about how we empower individuals to help address the greater good and establish their own legacy in the context of their work life.

Please help our neighbors in Japan--and everywhere around the world where people are in need.

And remember, we are all in this together.

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atna's picture
Hi Ross,
I was impressed by your post.It requires wider consciousness of "higher purpose" to write this post
I also believe that  even if the  apparant needs behind work are  in the lower layers of Maslow hierarchy ,there are hidden essences that drive people . and by drawing these essences like "growth","joy","transformation","fulfilment","vitality" to conscious level and trying to seek them in work-life circle we can unleash the hidden potential. I explained this here.