Monday, September 3, 2012

Meaning and means.

Distinguishing between the two benefits personal growth and trust in companies.

Ag shame, poor Charlie.

In an anonymous comment to one of my recent articles, he writes: “When one works for an organisation one wants to be paid and to hell with this service to others. The incentive is if one lives out whatever value the organisation wants to be known for you get paid (in cash),”. I emphasise its anonymity because it gives me some licence to be somewhat impolite and flippant in my response.

But the underlying issue is a serious one and has plagued economic man and organisational theorists for centuries. It’s a condition called “being a wage slave”, and while that term referred exclusively in the past to exploited migrant workers and the destitute, it can apply just as validly to anyone who is tied to the workplace only for pay. When applied to top executives the terms “golden handcuffs” or “retention bonuses” aptly describe the same condition. The latter may have a few more choices on parole than the former but the essence is the same. Only the chains and prison bars differ – one being hunger and desperation, the other mortgages and lifestyles.

Then, on the other end of the scale, I saw this Facebook posting by Western Cape community leader Nolan Adams: “I don't believe that our society really wants hand-outs, grants, easy-come-easy-go stuff, etc.! No, our society wants and needs opportunities. They want to take charge of their own lives and earn their own salaries and to be proud of whatever they manage to bring home - how big or small the stipend/salary may be!”

The beauty of the free market system is that it can accommodate both Charlie and Nolan – one focused on money and the other on meaning. In today’s world and the way most business organisations have been structured, I suspect that Charlie is by far the majority and Nolan the minority – although the latter includes quite a number of business icons who expressed the same intent and still made their fortunes as a result. We cannot prove Charlie nor Nolan right. I clearly favour Nolan and you may favour Charlie – it all depends on which wolf you want to feed. The real question is what makes the best driver of the human spirit and our economic collectiveness.

At the extreme end, one can find absolute, unconditional and exclusive dedication to a task that at a particular point in time disregards all other considerations, rewards or self-interest. I went through such an experience and described it in an article titled “A Decent Job”. Then there are those many recorded acts of heroism that involved extreme self-sacrifice including the ultimate sacrifice.

Somewhere between Charlie, Nolan and true heroes, there is an elusive truth that speaks to the very essence of being human. We try to package it neatly in a subject called “motivational theory” which in itself has achieved little in defining a one-size-fits-all driver for human endeavour. As organisational guru Peter Drucker once quipped: “We know nothing about motivation. All we can do is write books about it.”

Perhaps this is simply because in practice there is no such thing as a single definable motivational tool. People are motivated differently by different things, which means you would need some 7 billion different motivational criteria for all the people on earth. In each, these norms can change regularly depending on circumstances and changing priorities. On top of that we often confuse things like job satisfaction, self-worth, motivation, incentives and involvement. There may be links between them, but they certainly are not synonymous.

Of course, Charlie was being a tad mischievous. No-one works for pay only and the stipend at the end of the month is seldom, if ever the only thing that occupies us when we go to work or spend eight hours of the best part of the day in the workplace. Indeed many, if not most people get somewhat piqued when they see their pay slips, believing they deserve more; that the boss gets too much; that Pravin is being a bit greedy or that the government is squandering the tax contribution.

There are many other things, including the daily task routine, camaraderie at work, and the value of employment in creating a sense of self-worth. Obviously these cannot replace pay – that would simply be grossly transactionally incorrect and ignore universal principles that balance supply and demand, give and receive, generosity and gratitude and contribution and reward.

Charlie may have seen this light if he was the fall guy at one of my workshops where I ask those that profess to work exclusively for pay how they would respond if I offered them a job at fivefold more pay but where the job description was to do absolutely nothing all day, eight hours a day and five days a week. Most refused the hypothetical offer and only a handful said they would do it but for a brief period only.

The crucial point that people like Charlie miss and have blunted their consciousness of it, is the very significant distinction between meaning and means. Salaries and wages can never be anything else but means. If the work itself has no meaning, then nearly one third of one’s existence loses real meaning, indeed becomes demeaning.

We all have multiple self-identities, and one of the most important is our job or profession. It is a lot more than “earning a living”. One of the most frequent questions we ask of each other shortly after making an acquaintance is: “what do you do?” I have yet to hear the response: “I earn a living.” Not even Charlie would say that. And think of the difference in our inner response when the answer is either “I am a doctor”, or “I am an accountant.” The first gives one an immediate sense of greater value, of greater contribution and of making a greater difference to society. But if the accountant were to add: “I am an accountant for a hospital”, we would again get a sense of greater contribution.

Which, to a large extent is business’s own fault. Having beaten the drum of “here to make a profit” for so long, we have come to accept this demeaning description, forgetting that the real value of a business is not what it yields for shareholders, but the difference that it makes to our lives. That difference is contained in the axiom that our true value lies in our capacity to make a contribution to others. Linking work to this principle of service to others confirms that value.

We all value everything and everybody in our lives by the way they behave and not by what they possess. This is the underpinning motive behind everything we do because that is the way others value us. As doyen psychologist Viktor Frankl has told us, the search for meaning is at the root of all human endeavour. We can find it in many more things by simply questioning what difference they make to our lives – indeed it is more often the result of reflection, awareness, discovery and changing perceptions than of changing a circumstance.

To lose it in the workplace which is grounded in that principle is sad beyond description.

That is the tragedy of Charlie.he stipend/salary may be!

he stipend/salary may be!

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