One of my friends read my blog last week, and challenged that people aren’t going to work in an engaged, generous, genuinely productive and satisfying way – they’re too focussed on minimising effort and maximising income.
It is a reasonable challenge, and one which can be responded to in a number of ways.
Firstly, yes, there are some people, maybe even a majority, that take a disengaged approach to work, treating it as a necessary evil to be got out of the way with as little thought as possible. But that doesn’t force others to work in that way, nor even does it make suckers out of the people that do want to find engaging work. Throughout history engaged, talented individuals have created productive roles for themselves – they and we have been better for it, irrespective of what other people did around them.
Next, I genuinely believe that there are a lot more people than admit it, that have learned that work isn’t all about money, and care about being engaged by it. Many cultures teaches us not to admit to enjoying our work, and many people hide it. By opening up a genuine conversation about engagement, we’ll help challenge that culture, and create a safe space for others to acknowledge their desire for engaging work, and work towards achieving it.
Finally, it is absolutely in the world’s interest for many more people to find satisfying, engaging, truly productive work, even if not everyone currently wants to:
- The world has many problems that can only be solved by an engaged mind
- Technology is increasingly eliminating those jobs that can be done without engagement
- The increase in the share of income that goes to those jobs that use engagement make it critical that we increase the number of people taking such roles, or else suffer the consequences of inequality and social incohesion
- The idea that chasing after more money for its own sake will make us happier, has generally been shown to be an unsustainable myth.
For these reasons, I will be continuing to seek and promote ways in which we can all be more engaged with the work that we do.
Being judged on one’s own merits is generally considered a good thing. I often hear people complain about blamed for something that was caused by others, or that they weren’t in an environment that allowed their strengths to shine.
I would instead suggest that they’ve misunderstood the goal of a worker. It isn’t to be the best you, ignoring what’s around you. It is to take the world as it is, and to make it better.
I know this makes understanding each individual’s contribution much harder. When you’re successful, you can’t take all the credit. Spectacularly successful investor Warren Buffett famously recognised this in acknowledging that his talents wouldn’t have been valuable in any other place or time in history. And when you fail to add value, it is rarely all your fault.
Once you accept this, your focus becomes a more outward one. You know your skills and and what you enjoy doing – look around and think about where they can best be used:
- What kind of boss would let you perform at your best?
- What type of company would have the right opportunities to add value?
- How will you realise when you’re in a situation you are better off escaping?
Addressing these sort of questions may not change who you are or what you’re personally capable of, but they will have a big difference in what you can achieve.
Over the past year, I’m not the only person working in a bank who has been saddened to see a lot of colleagues, many of whom I’d call friends, leave the company not by their own choice.
Many of these people have been doing all the right things at work, demonstrating exactly the kind of behaviours that should be encouraged, for example:
- being generous with their time
- genuinely caring about other people
- being proactive, both in terms of learning and in terms of proposing improvements
- thinking more widely than about just your team, working to bridge silos
- thinking about the impact of their work on the long term sustainability of the business
- thinking about the impact of their actions on the environment and in the community
I would understand if people were starting to question whether this approach really makes sense. Particularly as you are seeing others around you who don’t display these behaviours (eg those who blindly do what they’re told, or keep under the radar) moving ahead, or are seeing people being criticised for some of these behaviours that you know are right.
Firstly, I’d point out that doing the right thing doesn’t guarantee the right outcome in the short term. In fact, even in the long term, I can’t honestly promise that the right outcomes will prevail. Luck still plays a part, as do factors outside your control. For example, you may be in a team that is no longer needed by your company. You may have skills that, while valuable elsewhere, aren’t what are needed right now. Or you might have an insecure boss that feels threatened by your approach, or is under undue pressure from his/her boss. No organisational performance management system is perfect. At the end of the day, despite lots of people’s best efforts to make things fair, the world isn’t as fair as we’d like it to be.
That all said, I still believe it makes sense to do the right thing, in how we work as well as in other areas:
- It will give you a more satisfying career – after all, would you really enjoy removing all proactivity, autonomy and purpose from your work.
- You’ll have the knowledge that you did the right thing, which is something that no one can take away from you. In contrast, if you spend your time pandering to the peculiarities of one boss after another, trying to please them at the expense of yourself, the company or the world, you always be one tiny misfortune away from having it all taken away from you.
- I do believe that people notice what you are like to work with, and how much you actually achieve. And it is a small world. I’d rather have future employers / colleagues know that I’m genuinely worth employing for the right reasons, than spend my time doing the wrong thing in order to protect my current job.
This doesn’t mean you should ignore what managers tell you, or the frequently changing agendas – even if you disagree, there’s still a lot to learn from them, and the ability to work in a team / organisation is important. But, when it comes to deciding what you’re going to do, and taking ownership of your career, I’d encourage people to stay strong and keep working in the way you know is right.