Why Joy at Work Matters

March 15th, 2016

According to a massive Gallup poll of more than 80,000 respondents, less than 1/3 of Americans are actively engaged at work. Fifty-one percent are “not engaged” and 18% are “actively not engaged.” Nearly 1 out of 5 people are totally checked out of their jobs. This, I propose is a national travesty.

I promise we’ll hear a lot of talk in this election cycle about about jobs: who will keep jobs here, who will create jobs. My guess is that by and large everyone will talk about the quantity of jobs and no one will talk about the quality of jobs. Now, the number of jobs is important and should rightfully be a concern. But an unemployment rate of 5% is a fraction of the mentally checked out rate of 18%. Worldwide, it’s even worse — 1/3 of people are actively disengaged.

Why does engagement matter? Well, first, why does a job matter? A job matters for many reasons but for simplicity we could say that it gives a person income, it gives a person purpose, and it gives a community stability. Without engagement, all three of these outcomes are put at risk. An unengaged person does not put his heart and soul into his work. He is not donating his blood, sweat and tears.

No employer wants an employee like that. Eventually that person will lose his job to someone else. Or maybe that job will be replaced by technology. Why should an employer deal with an unmotivated employee who mails it in when she can have a machine perform the same duties flawlessly every time? This is now a real option, and it is a big deal.

Macro-economists talk about the rate at which businesses employ labor (people) or capital (machines) to create their products. We are at a moment in history where some businesses are able to get way more value out of machines than ever before. As Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee point out in their book The Second Machine Age, the photo company Kodak at its peak had 145,000 employees and one billionaire (George Eastman). Instagram, another photo company, and its parent Facebook have created ten billionaires with a billion users and less than ten thousand employees.

Back to disengagement. So if work gives income, purpose and stability, we’ve seen how disengagement could lead to the disappearance of both income and stability (people often move or pull back from the community when they lose their jobs). And by definition disengagement means the second benefit of work, a sense of purpose, is also missing. And this lack of felt purpose is omnipresent — from busboys to investment bankers. This fact proves that money doesn’t solve the problem. As Barry Schwartz notes:

“The truth is that we are not money-driven by nature. Studies show that people are less likely to help load a couch into a van when you offer a small payment than when you don’t, because the offer of pay makes their task a commercial transaction rather than a favor to another human being…If people were always paid to load couches into vans, the notion of a favor would soon vanish. Money does not tap into the essence of human motivation so much as transform it. When money is made the measure of all things, it becomes the measure of all things.”

The good news is that it doesn’t have to be this way. Even if you are not an entrepreneur or CEO who can create jobs (or a politician who says he “creates” jobs), each of us can work to make work work again (see what I did there?). There are a number of ideas in the articles above — from cultivating friendships at work, to establishing whole new systems of corporate organizations. But I think the most important thing by far is helping each other discern the ways in which our work makes life better for other people.

The purpose of work has always been and always needs to be to create value for yourself and for other people. When we wrote the MBA Oath, this was our animating idea: you need to create more value than you extract. That’s not just the right thing to do ethically, it is what will make you engaged at work. It is a great irony, but serving others is secret to feel most satisfied yourself. Purpose comes from rising above yourself and seeing how you impact other’s lives positively through the products you create and the services you render.

“But Max,” some of you may say, “some jobs just aren’t fulfilling by their nature.” Oh really? Which ones? I grant that some jobs are much harder than others. There are clearly huge discrepancies in pay and in pay per unit of effort. I’m also not arguing that we shouldn’t actively support people rising to higher paying, higher skilled jobs. We should. But even those high skilled jobs can feel like a prison if a person has lost sight of the “why” behind their work.

“The supreme accomplishment is to blur the line between work and play.”  - Alfred J. Toynbee

And from what I’ve seen, joy can be found in almost any line of work.You don’t need to be convinced of this idea, I just ask you to consider it. I’ll leave you with a video, as an illustration of this way of thinking. It’s from the show Undercover Boss, where ABC had CEOs of big companies go undercover as low level employees of their companies to experience a day in their life. In this episode, Larry O’Donnell, the President and COO of Waste Management (a $45 billion company) spent several days posing as a a newly hired trash collector and janitor who has a film crew following him for a documentary.

The whole episode is good, but I particularly like the short section beginning around 23:30 when Larry gets assigned to clean port-a-potties at a fairground with Fredwhose attitude is so joyful and positive that it made the lowest job I can think of — cleaning human excrement — feel like a game and like a chance to do something worthwhile. Check it out. How does your job compare with his? How does your attitude compare? Each of us can lift up others, no matter where we are stationed.

© 2015 - 2016 Maxwell Anderson: The Weekend Reader. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission from Maxwell Anderson. Article by Maxwell Anderson.

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