We've Been Looking At Work the Same Way for Generations. It's Time to Shift Our Focus. The false story at the heart of free-market capitalism shaped decades of work. It's time to design something better.
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We're still struggling to move past a story about work that we fashioned 250 years ago. Our thinking hasn't moved much past the Industrial Revolution when we decided to believe that workers only worked for money. We believed that assumption so firmly we designed work in a way that made it true — and the resulting story remains the way we understand work.
Businesses need a new model to thrive, and that starts by making different assumptions that shape a different story.
We've been telling the wrong story
In 1776, Adam Smith, economic theorist and founder of free-market capitalism, put forth his view of humanity as it relates to work: "It is in the inherent interest of every man to live as much at his ease as he can; and if his emoluments are to be precisely the same whether he does or does not perform some very laborious duty, to perform it in as careless and slovenly a manner that authority will permit."
His view perpetuated three fundamental assumptions. First, people only work for the payoffs it produces — namely, pay. Second, as long as the work produces adequate payoffs, it doesn't matter what work people do. Third, there must be an authority monitoring people to ensure they're doing the work.
These assumptions formed the basis of a story that shaped the way we approach business, management and work.
We started to feel the effects of this approach when we introduced machinery in the 18th century. The value placed on these machines changed the relationship between the owners of the machines and the people who operated them. Instead of working with their people, the owners now sat above them.
The "scientific management" movement celebrated the prioritization of machines over humans and expanded on Smith's assumptions. It wanted to make workers as efficient as possible and redefined work as a relationship between two machines.
Working this way required a new form of discipline contrary to centuries of independence. People now had to focus on one mind-numbing task for long hours and do it exactly the way they were told. Because company owners were absorbed by the increasingly numerous and complex tasks of running a growing business — and because they believed workers required constant monitoring to ensure they did their jobs — they developed a hierarchy of supervisors and managers.
By breaking down work into meaningless tasks and removing any ability to move or think outside the standardized way, we gave people little reason to come to work except for the paycheck.
And by designing work this way, we made Smith's assumptions about why people work true.
This story explains why many companies track the keystrokes of their employees. If workers are unthinking cogs whose every motion must be made hyper-efficient, then the only way to confirm they're producing optimal output is to monitor their actions. You're crazy to trust your workers will do their work and do it well — they're only here for the paycheck after all!
This story also shapes the thinking behind the introduction of AI to call centers. According to the Wall Street Journal, one company added an AI-powered virtual agent to their call center, humanizing this virtual agent with a name and avatar. "Charlie" has analyzed a tremendous amount of data, so not only does she tell the humans she works with exactly what to do and how to do it, but soon she'll grade them on how well they do it.
We're now humanizing machines and dehumanizing people.
We've been stuck with the wrong mindset
To change our course, we need to stop looking at work as a transaction and adopt a purpose mindset.
The way we designed work under Smith's assumptions forced us to see it as a transaction: We work for money. For workers, jobs became a means to an end — a place to secure financial and social status in the world. For business leaders, the point of business was to make money.
Subsequent efforts to change work have come packed in a business case that outlines how this change will help business owners make more money. But that isn't real change; it's just another transaction.
The problem is that the transactional mindset isn't working — for people or for businesses.
According to Imperative's Workforce Purpose Index, only 14% of people with a transactional mindset find work fulfilling, compared with 66% of people with a purpose mindset. These findings are supported by Gallup's State of the Global Workforce, which reports that 79% of employees disengaged from their work.
While damaging on an individual level, a lack of engagement also means that businesses aren't getting the best contributions from their people. That results in businesses delivering poor service, developing the wrong products and delaying solutions the world needs.
When business leaders sit down to solve the problem, they frequently approach it with the same transactional mindset that says the right combination of incentives will buy them maximum output from their people — and we keep digging the same hole.
To achieve real change, we must adopt a purpose mindset.
A purpose mindset is a set of beliefs that enables us to optimize our lives to be fulfilled and in service. It prioritizes connections, growth and impact.
When we look at work this way, it becomes a valuable part of our lives. We're no longer simply serving a function for a paycheck; we're mastering the skills of our craft. We aren't identical cogs producing output as part of a large machine; we're individuals coming together to do something greater than ourselves. We no longer look forward to retiring from a job we hate to do something else; we want to remain useful and make an impact on the world throughout our life.
Now we're bringing our best to our work because we know our contributions matter. Our individual efforts get compounded by those of our team members, and what we put out into the world makes it better.
If we don't shift from a transactional mindset to a purpose mindset, we will remain stuck. We will continue to confront today's challenges with yesterday's solutions — and the problems will only get worse.
Unless we challenge the false narrative we've come to accept, we'll continue to create a world with work no one wants to do and a society that's disengaged from work and life.
We need to change the way we run business
Shifting our mindset is a first step, but we need to tell ourselves a new story and redesign how we work.
This new story is based on the following assumptions. First, people work to create, to be challenged, to achieve mastery of their skills, to grow, to build relationships and to contribute to something bigger than themselves. Second, because they're working for reasons they care about, they can do quality work without being constantly monitored by an authority.
To make these assumptions true, we need to make five key shifts in how we run business:
1. Why you exist:
The point of business needs to shift from making money to delivering value. You exist to help the people you serve do, achieve or become something that meaningfully makes their lives better.
You stop trying to be all things to all people. You know who you serve, and it makes more sense to stay narrow and go deep to deliver maximum value — and to do what you do better than anyone else.
2. How you think:
Your purpose is to deliver value. It functions as the focal point of your core strategy, which serves as a lens for everything you do. It's no longer about throwing resources behind every idea that might turn a buck; it's about deliberately filtering options so you only pursue the ones that align.
Work becomes meaningful because your team members understand the reason you're doing what you're doing.
3. How you define productive:
Instead of counting the number of hours people work or the number of keystrokes they make, you monitor how effectively you're delivering value.
Your goals center on the people you serve and what you help them achieve. You align your team members to those goals to make the point of what they're doing clear. And if your actions aren't delivering value, you adjust them.
4. How you treat people:
You recognize your people as what they are: human beings. They're creative, thinking, passionate people who bring skills, perspective and ideas to the table. Rather than telling them what to do and how to do it, you're excited to have them co-create your path forward as a business, and you support them every step of the way.
You must also prioritize your people over your machines. That doesn't mean working without technology; it means thoughtfully assessing technology and its effects — both positive and negative — with the understanding that you want to build a world where people thrive.
5. How you treat money:
Money is not the point of your business. It is a resource to invest in what you're doing and the people who do it. Money is a means to achieve your goals, deliver value and scale your reach.
The only way to do that is to generate sufficient profits to fund your work. You generate profit by inextricably linking the value you deliver to how you make money so that profit is the outcome of effectively pursuing your purpose.
We can design something better
Many of us have given up on finding meaning in work. In increasing numbers, people are leaving their job, starting a new one and leaving again. Or they're showing up, but they're disengaged.
It's easy to shelve this trend under the tired masthead, "no one wants to work anymore," but people are simply looking for a better way to do work.
The problem is the drudgery we've been trying to escape keeps following us.
For the last 250 years, we've approached work with the same thinking: We see work as a transaction and run our businesses in a way that gives people little other reason to show up except for the money. Anyone who expresses a motivation other than making money is dismissed as not running a serious business.
While this thinking got us here, it won't solve the problems we face today or allow us to thrive in the future. We need to assume that people work because it provides fulfillment and redesign how we run our businesses to make that assumption true.
We can think about work differently. We can build something better. And by building something better, we can provide work people actually want to do and deliver value the world actually needs.
Why would we continue to do work that results in any less?