Some Thoughts About Work

The good Dr Phil told me a story once about his visit to a very traditional workplace. It was a workplace characterised by low productivity, high industrial militancy and the inevitable alienation of the workforce. In walking around he came across one of the more renowned malingerers, (let’s call him Fred), loitering outside the workshop. Trying to be civil Phil asked, “How are you going Fred?”

Fred responded, “Well how the bloody hell do you think I’m going? I’m at work aren’t I. My father said he never enjoyed a single day’s work in his life. And I feel just the same.”

What a sad indictment that is on our work, our workplaces, our workplace culture and our work organisation.

Because of my efforts at trying to improve workplaces and attempting to address the attendant issues of culture, productivity and job design, over a period of two decades or so I was frequently called upon to speak at conferences on these and related matters.

Dr Stephen Covey has said that you should begin with the end in mind. I often started my presentations with an anonymous quote that illustrates well the end in mind that I have had over many years working in a variety of workplaces.

“A master in the art of living knows no sharp distinction between:
His work and his play,
His labour and his leisure,
His mind and his body,
His education and his recreation.
He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence through whatever he is doing and leaves others to determine whether he is working or playing. To himself he always seems to be doing both.”

This of course would have been inconceivable to Fred.

Often in such presentations I would deal with what I like to call the Management of Meaning. (This has been the subject of at least one previous blog essay. After over 150 blog essays I am bound to repeat myself a little!)

When my good friend Phil Harker and I decided to publish a book we titled it, “Humanity at Work”. We liked the title (although it was subsequently changed when the book was revised at the behest of our publisher). It was a good title because all organisations have at their base people interacting together. But more than that, good organisations seem to be those where employees can exercise all the dimensions of their humanity and have their human needs met at work.

The literature in the past decade or so seems to have discovered this again and again. Collins and Porras in “Built to Last” looked at enduringly successful companies and tried to distill what set them apart from others. What seemed to them to make the difference was that a company must have a core ideology that gives guidance and inspiration to people inside the company and lives out its values. And that the organisation’s purpose, its fundamental reasons for existence should be beyond just making money. A similar study in the UK carried out by Sir Anthony Cleaver, then Chairman of IBM, found that sustainable success is linked with pursuing long term goals consistent with core purpose and values and not concentrating exclusively on the financial indicators.

These findings were reiterated in another study by Kotter and Heskitt from the Harvard business school. A four year study of 9 – 10 firms in each of 20 industries, carried out by Kotter and Heskett, found that firms with a strong culture based on shared values, outperformed other firms in the study by a significant margin.

Why all this should be so becomes clearer from another study conducted by the Wilson Learning organisation. The study examined business performance, employee satisfaction and leadership practices involving 14 organizations and 25,000 employees. One of the conclusions from this study was that 39% of the variability in corporate performance is attributable to the personal fulfillment of employees.

All these studies reflect that organisations that succeed in the long term are purposeful, driven by core values and thus provide meaningful work for their employees. And these are themes the good Dr Phil and I elaborated on in “Humanity at Work.”

What is going on here? Well it all comes back of course to the nature of our humanity. The essential feature that distinguishes us as human beings is our consciousness. Because we are conscious, not only can we think and make decisions but we are aware of those processes. Consequently we have to contend with an internal world as well as an external one. In our book we proposed a tripartite model of a human being. We suggested that humans could be appropriately modelled by assuming that not only did they have a body and a mind, but that they had also a faculty that we termed “The Watcher”. When we think not only do we have thoughts but also we have an awareness of them. There is therefore an audience for our thoughts. This audience we termed “The Watcher”. In some Eastern traditions it is called the witness.

In common with all physical life on the planet, we humans have a body. From our body we derive physical needs. If we don’t satisfy our physical needs we die – physically. Fulfilment of our physical needs allows us to survive. We should temper this with the thoughts of the evolutionary psychologists, that our physical needs are not only designed to secure our survival but are designed as well to secure the survival of our genes. Consequently our repertoire of needs is not only aimed at ensuring our own physical survival but at propagation of the species, the nurturing and protection of our offspring, and the well-being of those that share our genetic inheritance.

In common with all animals on the planet, we humans have a brain. Through the cognitive processes of our brains we are able to discern the world and make decisions. From this mental capacity comes our second set of needs, one that we share with all the animals of the world. The second set of needs are our social and intellectual needs. Like all animals, we have the capacity to be aware of our outer world and to respond to it through the processes of thinking, feeling, and decision making. Like all animals we are intimately connected through strong emotional bonds to our fellow creatures, particularly those of our own species. If we do not find reasonable satisfaction for our social needs we die – emotionally (and sometimes even physically). Fulfillment of our social needs allows us to cope emotionally.

The third set of needs are spiritual needs – needs for meaning, the uniquely human needs. If we don’t supply our spiritual needs and fail to find meaning in our lives we die – spiritually (and sometimes socially and physically). Fulfillment of our spiritual needs and gaining a sense of personal worth through finding meaning and purpose in our lives is needed if we are going to experience our full humanity. Meeting these needs provides a transcendent sense of well-being, i.e. a sense of well being that transcends the condition of our immediate circumstances. These are the uniquely human needs we have because of the function of “The Watcher”. It is this faculty that causes us to able to call into view a vista of the past, to be able to experience the present and to imagine a future. Consequently we begin to have a perception of time and start to wonder about life’s purpose and meaning. It is the “Watcher” that makes human beings purpose seekers and meaning makers.

Now, we need to view all of this in the current historical context. In the past many of us derived meaning from our lives through involvement and association with the institutions of church, state and family. The influence of these institutions is on the decline. Consequently more and more people are seeking elsewhere for purpose in their lives. Many of them are looking to find that meaning through what they do at work. This provides both opportunities and obligations for leaders.

We believe that the principal instrument of leadership is the management of meaning. We have seen above how important it is for humans to have meaning and purpose in their lives. If we can provide workplaces that help employees to live meaningful lives then we have a powerful tool for gaining employee commitment. The prime issue is making work meaningful for employees.

What then is required to make work meaningful? Because we are self-aware and remember a past, are cognisant of the present and can anticipate a future, we need to know what is all this for? Where are we heading? What is the purpose of all this? In the organisational context it is about connecting employees to the purpose of the enterprise. And if this is to make a difference then the organisation has to have a vision that has social and perhaps moral elements to it.

There are three steps in this process. Firstly the leader must be able to develop such an organisational vision. For it to be effective in this way, the vision must relate to some higher level goals and superordinate values that are attractive to employees. The vision must therefore be more than a commercial proposition. It is our experience that most, if not all, employees want to think they are making a positive contribution to society at large and not merely generating a profit for shareholders. This is not to say that they should have no concerns for the commercial success of the enterprise. Indeed they must be critically aware that survival depends on commercial success, but that in itself is not enough. Therefore the organisation’s vision must make it clear how the commercial undertakings of the enterprise are beneficial to society at large.

The second step in the process is to clearly articulate and then communicate the vision throughout the organisation. Whilst many communication media are helpful, the leader is most effective doing this face to face with employees. The leader must be able to paint an inspiring picture of what the world would be like with the organisation’s vision achieved. The leader must be able to describe future scenarios where the organisation’s purpose has made a difference and how it is that society will benefit from the achievements of the organisation. It will be obvious that a purely commercial vision won’t enable this to happen in a convincing way. If our vision is to optimise shareholder value, to generate more profit, or to have a bigger market share than our competitors, we might secure the short term economic survival of the organisation, but we will struggle to gain the long-term commitment from our workforce.

The third step in the process is then to make connections for the individual workers between their day to day tasks and the long-term organisational vision. This is in fact what makes work meaningful. That is we have an organisational vision which has engaged them and then we are able to show how they in their day to day work can contribute to the achievement of that vision. They are able to make a difference to something that matters to them. If leaders can achieve this state of affairs they have come a long way towards the development of an effective organisation. You will go into many workplaces where the people are employed in doing what they are told in a regimented way with little understanding of why. How can we expect commitment from such workers? Contrast this with those workplaces where the leadership espoused above is exercised. Here people understand what the organisation is trying to achieve, but more importantly agree that the organisation is pursuing worthwhile ends. As well, they understand how they as individuals are contributing to these desired outcomes, outcomes that are making a positive contribution to our society.

As we saw earlier, in a society where many of the traditional institutions that we relied on for a sense of meaning in our lives, viz: the state, the church and the family, are waning in their influence, more and more people are trying to find a sense of meaning through what they do at work. This is a tremendously powerful opportunity for leaders. We are not suggesting that people should be exploited by manipulating their human need for a sense of purpose. We are suggesting that organisations should be pursuing visions that are social and moral, (and consequently beneficial to society at large) and that we should be acknowledging the humanity of those that work in our organisations. In this way both the needs of the individual and of society at large are met. This is not exploitation but facilitation to personal growth, involvement and job satisfaction, all in a context of advancing the community at large. We advocate processes that nurture the humanity and develop the human potential of the individuals that we work with. We are acknowledging that work, as all human endeavours, has a spiritual as well as an instrumental aspect. Whilst pursuing the pragmatic instrumental outcomes, we believe that good organisations are characterised by their attention (sometimes unconsciously) to the spiritual requirements of employees that can be met through work. The need for meaning is such a spiritual necessity.

This then is why those organisations referred to earlier have succeeded in the long term. They have provided meaningful work. They have provided environments where people can feel they can make a difference to something that makes a difference to them. In such organisations it is easy for people to align their purpose with the purpose of the enterprise and therefore motivation and productivity are high.
When individuals have not come to understand who they truly are they identify first with the body and the mind. They focus themselves on physical wealth and status to bolster their egos and distract them from their mortality. They are consumed by the pursuit of physical capital. If they become more mature in a psychological sense, their span of concern begins to widen to include significant others, family, community and so on. Under these circumstances they become interested in generating social capital. If, however they come to realise that they share the essence of their being with all of humanity. Then they begin to appreciate that the generation of spiritual capital is the most meaningful contribution they can make. As a result it is now important for us to address the issue of spirituality in the workplace.


Much of work today is still regimented into discrete jobs along the lines prescribed by Frederick Winslow Taylor over a hundred years ago. His techniques did indeed lead to some efficiencies and labour productivity increases. The approach was taken on by the production lines of Ford and GE and led to manufacturing expanding and providing the basis of the modern industrial economy. The package of tasks assigned to an individual employee became a “job”. Unions responded by declaring that if work was to be so subdivided then workers should do no more than the assigned tasks. Even into the nineteen sixties it was common to hear unions declare “one man, one job”. This they assumed would maximize employment. But of course it was this lack of flexibility that came back to bite us. Australia’s productivity began to decline in comparison with our international competitors. This led to the Microeconomic Reform Agenda of the eighties and nineties allowing industry to break away for the rigid awards and negotiate more flexible outcomes under enterprise bargaining. Ideally this led not only to a more flexible workforce but to the ability to parcel work in such a way that employees had more variety, had opportunities for personal development and were able to participate more directly in decision making. Currently the Australian Government has in place industrial regulation that is returning us to the nineteen seventies.

There is so much more that could be done. Rapid advancements in digital technology has enabled opportunities for flexibility and improved working arrangements that were unimagined thirty years ago. Work, particularly in the knowledge economy and in much of the services industry is readily distributed geographically. Virtual teams and networking groups which aid productivity and innovation are readily facilitated by the technology. People interact with colleagues around the world, geographically distributed and in different time zones. Progress is thwarted by the reactionaries in management and in the union movement who can’t begin to see work differently from the Taylorist model. Where and when people work should be at the mutual convenience of the individual and the enterprise. We are constrained by those who don’t understand that a workplace has to be discrete location. We are further constrained by those who believe that work must be performed between 8:00am and 5:00pm Monday to Friday. I shake my head in disbelief when in this secular age employees should be paid twice as much per hour for working on Sunday rather than weekdays.

By making our workplaces more productive and engaging places, in the long run companies prosper, wages increase and employment is maximized. By holding onto the unhelpful rigidities of the past the opposite occurs.

A sad feature of traditional workplaces is that those engaged in them often define their identities with their occupations. So when a manufacturing plant closes an employee might say, “I am a machinist, and there is no likelihood I can get such employment in my part of the world.”

This is a continuing theme – structural adjustment. Many of the jobs that are being lost are those from traditional manufacturing industries and the jobs that are being created are in the service industries and as a result translation from one industry to another is difficult. This highlights a deficiency in the way we (and unions in particular) have looked at employment. We have often sought in industrial agreements to insert clauses that are designed to ensure security of employment. There is no security of employment when the future of the enterprise is not secure. As a typical example, no amount of “prop-up” efforts such as the recent government commitment to “co-investment” can save the automotive industry in Australia. Employees need to come to understand that their security depends on their employability. This means they need to be able to skill themselves to meet industry demands. My father once advised me to do a trade because then I would be guaranteed a job for life. Despite his good intentions, he was wrong. No one now can acquire a qualification at age twenty or so and believe that will guarantee their employability for their whole working life. As technology and industry dynamics change, we also have to change, acquiring those skills that we need to maintain the currency of our employability.

An indication of this effect can be seen by the growing unemployment of unskilled people, particularly males, whose options for full time employment are rapidly decreasing.

8 Replies to “Some Thoughts About Work”

  1. Ted

    As always, a thought provoking article (blog). To update you and your followers, I 100% agree on your views on Frederick Taylor and ‘Scientific Management’ and how it continues to restrict our productivity and progress. To help, I concentrate my HR business on reversing the direction set by Taylor. We call it “HR in 3 Conversations” and our goal is to help remove the bureaucracy from managing staff and return to conversation to the centre of the relationship. In hind sight I have actually been doing this quite successfully for over15 years – I just didn’t realise it.
    Keep up the thought provoking ideas.

  2. Many thanks Ted…….when my second Son James joined McDonalds in the late 80’s and when I went along the parents’ briefing – well what you mentioned in this blog was exactly what they talked about (and practised, it would seem – judging by their massive worldwide success)……Jack

  3. Never stop with the message Ted. As times get tougher we need to resist the temptation to Manage ahead of Leading. I recall you talking these themes in 1995 and have always held them as part of my mantra. The message is more relevant today than ever, and continues to gain importance to act apon. Cheers.

  4. Ted,

    Many thought-provoking elements in the blog this week but what I wanted to focus on is my current circumstance as a Qld public servant no longer with job security (the PS really does have an entrenched culture of jobs for life) and awaiting some latter day Moses to lead us out of the wilderness (we are currently consumed with getting rid of employees as opposed to doing positive things).

    Now I have to confess to spending my working life in the PS although I have moved jobs and States. I’ve been through a number of big shake-ups and have my psychological battle scars but the enduring lessons for me have been the importance of leadership and humanity in the workplace. Sadly both of those elements are missing at present and I feel helpless as I observe productive and dedicated colleagues being retrenched without a moment’s thought for the impact on them and their humanity.

    I’m not arguing for a continuation of jobs for life but it is disturbing that the higher order elements of a successful workplace that you describe in the blog have been retrenched along with colleagues. I hope I’ll be around long enough to help with the reconstruction.

  5. Thanks Ted,

    I recall playing a game many years ago with a tagline of “a minute to learn, a lifetime to master”. Whilst that game has gathered dust and been forgotten, bringing these principles to life has proven to follow this tagline.

    I recall thinking, many years ago, that these ideas seemed so obvious – and yet I have found them much more difficult to bring to life, in practice.

    Like Ian, I’d also encourage you to never stop this message.

    Whilst it’s easy to point at the obvious holes in current IR policy, the policies of the other side have also left a lot to be desired.

    My children delight in my description of current politics as a battle between the Blue Party, the Red Party and the Green Party – each with paradigms as simple as the names would suggest.

    Unfortunately it seems that the current crop of leaders (no capital “L” for them) have fallen under the spell of simplifications promoted by focus groups and sound bites.


    PS – I also thought the modified title of “the myth of 9 to 5” conveyed a certain important meaning as well – very much aligned with your quote at the top.

  6. Thank you all for your comments.

    Taylor , of course Mark, was largely focussed on the efficiency of physical labour. That is no longer a significant field of work in the modern economy. But even so, in my experience you can never get the best out of people if you can’t get them aligned to the purpose of the enterprise.

    John, I feel for your situation. Once in my career I was forced to make a large number of people redundant. It was one of the worst experiences of my managerial career. However, it did encourage me ever after, to try and pursue the highest level of productivity possible. That, I felt was the best way to ensure the security of my employees employment. When I started Stanwell Power Station we were able to man the station with about half the number of employees that other similar facilities employed. I am sure that that not only helped in preserving job security but it also resulted in better, productive jobs that engaged people better.

    There is also truth in your assertions Paul. We, as managers, should resort to IR as a last resort. The main game is in developing constructive relationships between management and workforce. Some organisations I’ve worked with have prided themselves with the great relationship they have with unions.What they need to pride themselves on is the relationships they have with their employees. That is the main game.

    Thank you again for all your comments.

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