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Take the bullshit out of jobs and give people meaning

Why incentives and employee development programmes can be counter-productive


New Zealand has some amazing employee engagement initiatives, including flexible working hours, yoga at lunch break - even a four-day work week on full pay, but none of these can compensate for a meaningless job.


The anthropologist David Graeber's recent essay on 'Bullshit jobs' struck a chord with millions of people because he highlighted the pain so many people feel because they're doing a job that no one would miss if they stopped doing it.


High up on this list were people who create and sell products that no one actually needs. The debate has left many people questioning their own jobs, but Graeber makes it clear; if you think you are doing a 'bullshit job' then chances are you are.


Human beings are hard wired to care. We want to feel important. We want to do something of value; it makes us feel good. And that's why a tangible, worthwhile - even purposeful - company mission and vision can take jobs from bullshit to meaningful.


However, it is not enough to have a vision statement on the wall that no one believes or to settle for sending your people out to do a few volunteer days a year because, deep down in their hearts, they will know if they are doing something useful.


When people are engaged by a worthwhile vision, they will wake up with a spring in their step ready to face the challenges ahead, knowing the effort will be worth the reward. Without purpose, they wake up feeling weighed down by the deep pain of knowing that their work lives are pointless.


Human beings need meaning. We crave it. As much as we all want money, most people know that meaning doesn't come from money and fame alone.


In the words of Jim Carrey, "I think everybody should get rich and famous€¦ so they can see that it's not the answer".


Even lots of money eventually loses its shine


Of course a big salary would be nice, but in the long run even the people on a lot of money will begin to feel unfulfilled if they can't find meaning in their work.


Simply put, while we're climbing the career ladder to earn enough money to pay the bills the money we make will make us happier because it gives us what we need to survive - after that it does little to affect our happiness. In fact it can make it worse because it makes us more aware of the emptiness in our lives.


If your people are battling the feelings of emptiness and desperation that are the result of a meaningless job, then even a four-day work week isn't going to save them. If anything, this might make it worse as they'll have more time to think about the lack of meaning in their lives or they'll spend their fifth day plotting how to escape the confines of working for you.


Having worked with many human resource professionals and personal development coaches on transformation and change projects within organisations, it's not uncommon to hear that the greatest challenge arises when people suddenly realise they're in the wrong job.


As one human development coach put it, "We can be halfway through the first session on 'purpose' when suddenly half the room becomes aware that they're doing the wrong job; that they're working for the wrong organisation".


Even development programmes can't fix what's broken


How do you proceed with developing people for a specific organisation when the first, most crucial step is broken? When half the room have just asked themselves, 'Who am I? What is my life about? And what am I here to do?'


They may not yet know the answers but it's clear that they're not fulfilling their purpose in their current role. Do you brush over it? Pretend the elephant in the room doesn't exist? After all, you've been paid to coach these people to be leaders for the organisation, not coach them out of the organisation.


Naturally, not every organisation is solely focused on making shareholders richer. Not every organisation is filled with people giving up precious time with their families and their loved ones, or giving up time on themselves, because they're so busy creating and selling products that aren't of any use to anyone.


But, these realities do exist.


The royal commission into misconduct in Banking in Australia is evidence of this. The Guardian reported appalling behaviour by Australia's major banks, including alleged bribery, forged documents and mis-selling insurance to people who can't afford it. The Commonwealth Bank admitted some financial planners had been charging fees to clients who have died.


Some may say that the people behind these behaviours don't care. They're just in it to make as much money as they can, no matter what the cost to others. That these people are quite happy with the fruits of their endeavours. However, the vast majority of employees know exactly what's going on, and won't like it. Unfortunately, they also face the terrifying prospect of having to get up every day to do a 'bullshit' job with no way out because they need the money.


Research shows that in some western countries, workplace stress and depression are escalating - as high as 30 percent or more. The danger of trying to address this with professional development programmes - in organisations that have no purposeful vision - is the risk that all you are doing is shining a light on the 'meaningless' of it all, making the situation worse.


Begin with the 'why' behind the job


In the course of our work here at Real TV we have worked with a large number of organisations that are adopting purposeful visions, to not only help them discover what that vision is but to help them communicate that vision to everyone involved. Time and time again, success follows when an organisation first helps connect people to the 'why' in what they do.


For example, take somebody who works in accounts receivable for an organisation where most of the people are engineers that spend their day arranging transistors and wires to create microships.


These microchips are integrated into various products including baby incubators. If you aren't connected to the why behind your organisation, you might view what you do as dull or monotonous because day in and day out all you're are doing is sorting through the accounts receivable.


However, your 'why' is more than a functional description.


In an organisation that communicates and celebrates their purposeful vision, you are more likely to see your role as essential to saving babies lives. Why? Because without you the process would fall apart and the babies would not benefit from the essential microchips that your organisation develops.


There are limitless opportunities to be purposeful in business, no matter what your business is.


Answering the 'why' allows your people to start finding meaning and context. It shows them that what they do matters. That there are others that benefit from the effort they put in.


Organisations need to shift to being purposeful sooner rather than later


We're living in an age when people want purpose over pay cheques. Millennials are widely reported as being the generation that wants to change the world, but research shows that it's not only the millenials that want meaning. The older we get, the more we also go in search of purpose.


While particularly the baby boomers may be characterised as the generation that went after money to buy the big house and the fancy car, they've reached an age where they now want to give back.


A millennial organisation called Imperative - a leadership development platform for the Purpose Economy - ran a global survey of 26,000 LinkedIn members and discovered 'sense of purpose deepens the longer you are in your career'. More than 48 per cent of baby boomers prioritise purpose over pay and titles and 28 per cent of Gen X feel the same way.


Purpose is clearly a competitive point of difference for organisations that want to attract and retain outstanding talent. But your ability to achieve purposefulness needn't be limited to 'what you do'.


Even organisations who are involved in less than politically correct or ethical pursuits can be, and often are, involved in purposeful pursuits.


It may be fossil fuels and plastic, but you can still be part of the solution


It doesn't matter whether it is an organisation that generates power from fossil fuels or powers our cars with hydrocarbons. If the leaders in the organisation are working with us to solve a challenge that will make a difference, finding the 'why' in what you do is not going to be difficult.


Pointing the organisation towards finding a solution that aims to make the world that little bit better will help your staff look at their jobs in a new light. Even when they are a part of the problem, they can feel empowered by the fact that they are also the ones that can help solve the challenge.


The world has changed. We are now entering a VUCA world (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguos). To survive we can no longer afford a workforce that is apathetic and depressed. We need them to be engaged, excited and ready to act.


Once people are engaged with what they do. Once they can see where they are heading, they will fight to achieve it. Only then - when purpose and the 'why' have been set in context - is it time to offer them learning and development programmes so that they can become their best selves.


Once 'purpose' and the 'why' are in context, we can begin to build a culture where our people feel empowered to create ideas and inspired to find solutions. Then it's time to introduce things like flexible work hours, remote working, yoga at lunch break, wellness programmes, and - most exciting - a four-day work week on full pay because that's when you will see the real results.


Kim Goodhart has an MA (Hons) in Psychology from the University of Edinburgh. She is the co-founder and company director of Real TV, an Inspiration and Communication Agency. Real TV combines the art of authentic, powerful story-telling with the psychology of how to motivate people to align your people with your why, create a movement, develop your behaviours, build your tribe, look after your people and connect you with your customers. To find out more please email her at [email protected]





We're living in an age when people want purpose over pay cheques

Suddenly half the room becomes aware that they're doing the wrong job; that they're working for the wrong organisation