Some social observers, as social observers are wont to do, find doom and gloom shadowing today’s workers. They see workers crippled by workism, an obsession with work as their driving purpose in life.
This isn’t much different from the rat race and other metaphors from former years. Each generation seems to differ in its self-perception, and to the extent work is central, it’s worth studying. Workism is a media buzzword tossed around as a condition affecting workers emotionally, spiritually, and productively. Where these work conditions are real, there are five actionable leadership strategies to keep workism away:
- Systemic Collaboration: Effective collaboration across functional silos must be an organizational principle, function, and policy.
- Positive Future: Procedures and practices must encourage and enable optimism. Future-focused leaders find it easier to connect emotionally and strengthen personal and performance ties built around the same goals.
- Aligned Values: Productive bonds are tied easily and sustained longer when everyone is free to align behaviors with shared and consistent respect for honesty, integrity, and transparency.
- Respect: Recognized “happy” workplaces, the ranking “most loved” workplaces all use respect as their organization’s social currency. It drives performance immediately and retains talent longterm.
- Killer Achievement: Projects end with achievement—hopefully. But, in an emotionally-connected workplace, killer achievements integrate all organizational contributions while connecting customers and communities with brand potential.
Work is a human imperative.
A workplace—manufacturing work floor, big box retail, high pressured office, innovation incubator, or something else—is a human organization. If its leadership fails to define its culture, purpose, and direction, its members will. Keeping those capabilities aligned invariably leads to success for the organization and comfort among its participants.
Institutions differ from organizations. Conserving institutions—religion, family, and state—have their own struggles to sustain central values in a secular world. Peter F. Drucker found humans are wired to form organizations to adapt to change. But he noted the gold standard Oxford Dictionary only introduced the word “organization” in 1950 as if it were a recent concept.
As a futurist, he predicted our dependence on knowledge-based work and the necessary evolution of organizations to manage its innovation and distribution. “Information-based organizations, in other words, require clear, simple, common objectives that translate into particular actions” (Drucker, 1988). In an age when information workers own the tools of their trade, every worker has an obligation to share information. “But information responsibility to oneself is still largely neglected. That is, everyone in an organization should constantly be thinking through what information he or she needs to do the job and to make a contribution” (Drucker, 1988).
People will group together to make, share, and supply a demand. It’s a social instinct. These people have found their work succeeds on multiple planes when that social contract is respected and secure. Left to their own instincts, people will make work work. This workism, if it is a stressor, may reflect individual and organizational failure to manage these changes.
What’s wrong with workism?
What is workism? “It is the belief that work is not only necessary to economic production, but also the centerpiece of one’s identity and life’s purpose; and the belief that any policy to promote human welfare must always encourage more work” (Thompson, 2019). But this claim begs so many questions.
- You must wonder how “typical” millennial tech specialists at the focus of this new “-ism” are of all miserable Americans. Yes, there is evidence of unfortunate failures is continuing institutions, frustration with political divisiveness and inertia, disillusioning experiences with organized religions, and more. But this working generation has no monopoly on concerns which successive generations have labeled differently.
- Brunch may have replaced communion on Sundays where atheism and non-belief, secularism and materialism have become pleasures of the educated elite and financially secure. However, atheism and agnosticism are European and American luxuries; in fact, organized and ethnocentric religions are growing in sub-Saharan Africa, China, and the western nations of South America (Bullard, 2016).
- Despite a casual acknowledgment that he paints with a broad brush, Derek Thompson centers his fear of workism on singularly stereotypical passions for accumulation and aggrandizement without demonstrating how they represent most workers. He quotes reports that people desire work they enjoy and in which they can get lost, but he treats them as negatives. And, he disregards fulfilling values in community and collaboration.
These are clues to the misunderstanding of work. It is misplaced values that make people unhappy, not their work hours. In my world, people always make time for what they value. And, while all work has meaning, it’s not the ultimate meaning.
Can management prevent workism?
The research and case studies woven through my new book, In Great Company, found a more amiable workforce (Carter, 2019). The intelligent people I interviewed know what they want in the workplace. They support emotionally-connected and psychologically safe environment more than the need for pay and perks you might expect.
If workism has taken on the power of religion, it reflects the absence of something valuable. If, as Thompson holds, “And there is no question that an elite obsession with meaningful work will produce a handful of winners who hit the workist lottery: busy, rich, and deeply fulfilled” (Thompson, 2019), the future seems bleak.
I am not sure it’s an organization’s responsibility to serve the obsessions attributed to workism’s workers. Rather, my research finds evolving economies have made work more rewarding and leadership better prepared to effect achievable workplace communities bound by mutual interests, aligned values, and reciprocal respect. And, before workism becomes viral, leaders can implement strategies to change workers’ focus, optimize their passions, and increase productivity.
Bullard, G. (2016, April 22). The World’s Newest Major Religion: No Religion. Retrieved March 19, 2019, from https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/04/160422-atheism-agnostic-secular-nones-rising-religion/
Thompson, D. (2019, February 24). Workism Is Making Americans Miserable. Retrieved March 19, 2019, from https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/02/religion-workism-making-americans-miserable/583441/