10. How to be Good at Work Now and in the Future
A ‘leader’ is simply another name for a grown-up. Someone who can take responsibility, think for themselves and support others.
In 424 AD, St. Augustine wrote in one of his letters: “Cum dilectione hominum et odio vitiorum”, which roughly translates as, “With love for mankind and hatred of sins.”
I began my work as The Corporate Philosopher in late 2002. Since then I have worked with businesses, social enterprises and public-sector institutions employing over 600,000 people in Europe, Africa, Asia and North America. I have worked as an advisor, educator and coach to over 10,000 leaders, helping them clarify their purpose, their values and improve the quality of their thinking, their debate, their decisions and their actions. Together we have learned how to be good at work, more and more of the time.
Now, whilst much of my work has been triggered by death, destruction, fraud or just poor performance, I have not only been able to identify the root causes of these disasters, but also the good in all of us. This book is my opportunity to share these insights with you and in this final episode I’m going to summarise all this learning and share some thoughts about what we need to change in the world of work for good.
“Love is all you need.”
We began our journey with love, because without love there is no life. From the moment we’re born we only survive and thrive because of the love of our parents, families and friends. Our purpose in life is to love and care for others.
In our private lives we work hard to do this, but when we are at work this ethos and purpose is too often suppressed or forgotten. Instead we find our humanity is denied and our job is to comply with Rule #1: “To make the numbers, or else.” We become compliant robots within a feudal hierarchy.
Whilst most of us live, love and raise families in a democracy, we work within totalitarian plutocracies within which power comes from wealth. At work we find ourselves stranded within the medieval woodcut, yet with twenty-first century, industrial thinking. Not only is our humanity and democracy denied, we are forced to see the world as a predictable, ordered, even a clockwork mechanism, in which we are disconnected from the real complexity, chaos and beauty of our living environment.
We live in an eco-system, but work in an ego-system.
Too many of our economists and business leaders assume that our world is precise and predictable. But the truth is that their impressive mathematical economic models are no more accurate or helpful than those of astrologers, who claim to predict human affairs by the movement of planets many millions of miles away. Graphs, spreadsheets and financial forecasts have become holy texts from which no dissent or heresy is permitted, until a business failure or a global financial crisis reminds us that life and work is not as predictable as many of our leaders would have us believe.
And yet many of us know How To Be Good At Work, despite the lack of humanity, democracy and holistic systems thinking in our workplaces. We know this because without this understanding our private lives would be so miserable that life would not be worth living.
“Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.”
Most of the leaders I work with privately agree with this diagnosis of the fundamental flaws in the design of work today. However, sadly it would appear that this design is unlikely to change until we have a meltdown significantly worse than the financial crisis of 2007-8. Only 10 years on, signs are already emerging that lessons have not been learnt.
What then can we do to be good at work? After nearly 15 years collaborative work, it boils down to answering four fundamental questions:
- Why do we exist?
- What values do we believe in?
- How do we decide what’s right together?
- What will we do to sustain our existence?
Ideally, the exploration of these questions and their answers takes place over two days, because, whilst we begin with existential philosophy, we end by applying these questions and our answers to the practical work that we do.
I begin with the positives; by helping people understand the nature of our existence as human beings in a civilised society. I hold up a mirror to help them see their own personal purpose, values, thinking, decisions and behaviours. I help them to see the good in who they are, what they do and how they do it.
This approach is known as “appreciative inquiry”. As a learning philosophy it works by looking at what works and doing more of it. It works because we are doing the right thing in the right way, some of the time. It also works because it is a positive, inspiring mind-set. It lifts us up out of any current problems, or even despair. And if you focus on doing the right thing, you won’t have time to do the wrong thing!
The learning environment, the culture that I help leaders to create together, is meaningful, human, democratic, safe and fun. This is the easy part.
The more challenging action is to help leaders model all of this back in the workplace. The most effective technique is to show people how to focus on how they make decisions together. As we have already seen in Culture and Leadership, the way to change a complex, adaptive system like a workplace community is to do more of the right things all of the time.
Water changes from solid to fluid at just over zero degrees Celsius. But, ALL of the water has to warm up just that one degree.
If you’re not a leader, you may be thinking, but how does this apply to me?
Part of the answer to this question is that in a sense we are all leaders. That’s what it means to be a grown-up. If you are working with a colleague, a customer or a patient, you are leading your organisation in that moment.
The other part of the answer is to make a conscious effort to work with leaders and teams who display the qualities we’ve been exploring in this book. And, if you can’t find this in your current job, find a new job with people that share your values and can help you achieve your full potential as a human at work. If you don’t then not only will your working life be miserable, but what you do will be replaced by a machine or a robot.
If you are treated like a robot and if the work you are doing is boring, repetitive or dangerous, then these are the jobs that are disappearing fast. But unless, or until, we programme machines with consciousness, emotions and a conscience, then it will be our love, our compassion and our humanity that will always define the very best of us and …
How to be Good at Work
“It’s a cruel and random world, but the chaos is all so beautiful.”