In Robert Morrow’s novel Ringing True, a group of Seattle twenty-somethings decide to address the sad state of humanity by launching a for-profit religion via cyberspace. The “product” or “bible” of the religion is contained in 12 precepts called “The Numbers,” each of which deals with a unique facet of human existence.
Number 10 talks about work:
It is fair to say that the human race has confused the meaning of work as thoroughly as it has confused the meaning of good and evil. The true nature of work has been further compromised by chaotic designations of financial value. Thus we live in a world where the people who feed us, teach us and protect us earn far less than those who entertain us, those who scheme for power and those willing to exploit innocence.
For many people living in industrialized cultures, work is often disconnected from meaning through specialization and the invisible coercion of the economic system. For many people living in agricultural societies, work is inherently tied to survival. What is ignored in both is that every human being has a unique contribution to make for themselves, for others and for the world. Work does not have to be meaningless: it can be the ultimate expression of responsibility. All forms of responsible work should be honored.
Each person will find their own meaning in their work, and the value of work should be measured not only by how far it advances the human condition but also by how much satisfaction and meaning it brings to the individual doing the work. True work nourishes the human soul.
This certainly appears to be wishful thinking, given the state of the workplace today. Between engagement surveys showing workers checking out of the organizational program and the continuing popularity of Dilbert and The Office, the workplace today doesn’t seem to generate much opportunity to find meaning beyond the daily encounters with the absurd. Cynicism dominates, and the phrase, “It pays the bills,” sums up how many people feel about their jobs.
When Morrow writes, “Each person will find their own meaning in their work,” this is not idealism but an observation of how human consciousness operates. Consciousness always requires an object; we are always conscious of something. As soon as we become conscious of something, we attach meaning to it. Think of an apple and you might think, ‘I’m hungry, or “Adam & Eve,” or “iPhone,” or “I lost a baby tooth biting into an apple.” The next time you see a perfect stranger, pause for a moment and notice all the meanings you attach to that person based on appearance (age, social status, cultural tendencies, etc).
You cannot stop this process in yourself or in another human being. We all seek meaning every minute of every day, even in our dreams. It’s how we interact with our world.
Most organizations fail to grasp this simple truth. Some try to ignore meaning entirely, as if the world would be better off if we all just left our conscious minds at home. Others try to impose meaning through rigid organizational philosophies, policies that demand conformity and status symbols. Some use the onboarding process to indoctrinate people in the “company way;” others use the process to take care of the legal CYA that contaminates the getting-acquainted process with the clear message, “We don’t trust you.” Nearly all organizations ignore the fact that, despite their efforts, each individual is going to interpret the world in his or her unique way.
This leads to the disconnection that dominates organizational life and provides Scott Adams withe fodder for his cartoons. It is a fundamental truth of human communication that I won’t really listen to you unless I feel heard and understood. I’m not going to share what I think or feel unless I have confidence that you really want to hear what I have to say. Unless I sense that you care about my input, I’m going to hear your input as coercion, no matter how nice you say it. This leads to the silly game that dominates organizational cultures everywhere: the game of passive aggression. It leads to meetings where we all follow the corporate line during the meeting, then leave the meeting to seek out like-minded radicals to bitch about what a waste of time it was.
We have heard about the importance of “creating shared meaning” in leadership training courses and communication workshops, but we tend to interpret “shared” as “imposing the company vision on a whole lot of people at roughly the same point in history.” The truth is you can’t “get everyone on the same page” unless you allow them to shape the content of the page.
This means that leaders have to allow every person who belongs to or enters your organization the chance to make a difference. It means you have to change your onboarding processes so that it’s more focused on mutual understanding than indoctrination. It means that leaders and team members should spend more time listening to what current and new team members want out of life and work, then use that information to find ways to help people achieve both personal goals and organizational goals at the same time.
It also means that leaders should use position power intelligently instead of automatically. The vast majority of people who enter the workforce want to find positive meaning and satisfaction in the work they do. They don’t need to be controlled; they need to be inspired to put those best efforts to work for their own good and for the good of the organization. They need good information to make intelligent decisions about their work and they need a good leader who is willing to listen help them think things through.
So much of the absurdity, frustration and pain of modern organizational existence would disappear if we simply recognized that people will attach meaning to their work. If you over-control, withhold information and fail to listen, the meaning they attach to their work will be the same meaning that Scott Adams’ characters attach to their work. If you engage in open and honest dialogue and teach people what they need to know about the organization and its values, the meaning they attach will be much more in sync with what you’re trying to achieve.