In the new world of work, we are (supposedly) all free, all mobile, all connected. But is it really true?
In his book “Drive”, the author Dan Pink tells us “the surprising truth about motivation”: What really gets us up in the morning is not capitalistic benefits packages, but a search for purpose, mastery and autonomy. Gone are the days of my grandmother dragging herself to a factory to scrape a penny together to survive. Now that we have everything we need we can work on what is important to us, to develop ourselves and because we want to. This is motivation 3.0.
But is it truly so awesome that IT professionals working for a ROWE company can punctuate their programming work with surf sessions on a beach in Thailand? Or is it rather absolutely bloody terrible that when they take a holiday the other side of the world, they can’t stop thinking about their jobs and never switch off? Addicted to their iPhone (laptop, iPad) and mobile internet-based you-can-work-anywhere-anytime work ethic, they work in their “free time” to avoid Information Deprivation Disorder.
And many “engaged” American white collar (no collar?) workers today work far more than they ever did before: The amount of work required to survive a week in medieval times has not at all been replaced in the 21st century by Tim Ferris’ best-selling notion of the “4-Hour Work Week”. And despite office conditions being more ergonomic, open-spaced, ping-pong-table friendly, more and more workers suffer from burnout, depression and stress.
Fashionable HR gurus like Nigel Marsh continue to talk about work-life balance, the need for “engagement” and the joy of working from home. I train new leaders on the same topics. But has our quality of life actually improved or is it just work propaganda that has everyone has “sold” (including the people in HR closing the sale)?
In her book “Get Real: How to see through the hype, spin and lies of modern life”, author Eliane Glaser tells us that much of what we are asked to believe about our wonderful life today is actually some form of covert ideology. This “soft power” is designed to get us to believe that we, the people, are doing better. But in reality, the invisible hand pushing many of these modern models of freedom of choice and people-power simply aims to reinforce the same kinds of class-control that have always existed: Politicians who are supposed to “listen to the people” outsource market-research sessions with their “customers” in order to find better ways to tell them whatever they want to hear, whilst they continue to eat 5-course meals in Harvard and Eton; the Britain’s Got Talent “everyone can succeed” dream of Susan Boyle hitting the big-time conceals the fact that the majority of people are watching this dream at home on a credit-paid oversized TV, no better off than they ever were before. Regardless of what policies may or may not actually be implemented by our politicians and regardless of the inability of the majority to rise above the mundane, we continue to believe that we actually have a say and can all become famous.
When it comes to new forms of motivation for work, Eliane Glaser suggests that whilst we are encouraged to want it more-and-more, work actually gives us less-and-less. Work seems more purposeful (yet relaxed) but its concealed demands are greater than ever.
I interviewed Eliane Glaser recently to get an in-depth look at this idea and find out if it’s true that I work 60 hours a week because I’ve been sold a lie, or if we really can find purpose and enjoyment at work…
DAN: What made you start thinking that this new motivation story was not all it seemed to be?
ELIANE: According to ‘Motivation 3.0’ as I believe it’s called, we are no longer wage slaves oppressed by authoritarian bosses, but we now work because we want to, because it fulfills us. We don’t just work to live, we live to work. The new language of management – and, incidentally, of marketing – is all about ‘engagement’, ‘two-way conversations’, and authenticity. Workplaces offer free food and drink and install ‘break-out’ or ‘chill-out’ areas with bean-bags and table football. But, as I argue in my book, I believe that this funky, pseudo-spiritual language of empowerment really masks a new power-grab by employers and financial elites more generally. In an age where people are working longer hours than ever before, where union rights are being eroded, where job security is diminishing and wags are stagnating, this rhetoric about fulfillment and ownership functions as a kind of fig-leaf or window-dressing for what’s really going on. And in many work sectors, for example creative and journalistic work, there’s a new notion that you don’t just work for money, you work ‘for the love of it’, as if working for money is some narrow, materialistic endeavour. The internet is awash with utopian promises of freedom, democratisation and empowerment for ordinary people, but if you are not paid for your work, you simply cannot afford to do it, unless you are lucky enough to be independently wealthy. Which is not very egalitarian after all.
DAN: You say that we now “live to work”. I remember when it used to be fashionable to say exactly the opposite: Work was ONLY about what it could give you outside – more partying, more holidays, more “stuff”… Surely if we’ve all been “sold” something else, we must have been ready to buy it? What is it in the working population that made us ready to switch to “the engagement ideal”?
ELIANE: I think that we all have a desire and a need for community, camaraderie, and meaningful individual and shared goals. Employers have realised that if these desires and needs can be situated in the workplace, this will result in greater investment by employees. By offering on-site free food, social events, social spaces, and away-days etc, corporations and other employers encourage workers to find what they need at work. Furthermore, opportunities for social and community participation and idealism outside of the workplace have declined: there are fewer opportunities for civic and community engagement, or contact with networks of neighbours or extended family. The rise of new technologies, commuting, consumer culture, and long working hours themselves – all these developments are eroding the opportunities for finding satisfaction and meaning outside work.
DAN: In your book, you talk about politicians who no longer talk honestly and openly about their own ideals, oil giants who position themselves as “green” and mass-produced brands who pretend to be artisanal and ethical. What would you say to the readers who brush off your ideas as cynical and simply “anti-establishment”?
ELIANE: I think there is an assumption that cynicism and optimism are opposed; that to be cynical is not to be constructive. But I think that questioning belief-systems and being critical is an underrated activity. By critiquing the deceptions and illusions in our politics and culture we can start to see things as they really are and start to influence things in a real way. So actually I am pretty optimistic, because I believe that by pushing concealed agendas out in the open, we can start to have a proper explicit debate about the kind of world we want to live in. I’m not sure that I’m anti-establishment, but I am critical of the elites in our society that unfairly monopolise power and resources. The gap between rich and poor, powerful and powerless in our societies is getting ever wider. It’s also ironic that those elites regularly adopt anti-establishment language themselves – for example that ‘radical’ Yahoo slogan: ‘The internet is under new management: Yours’ and the funky T-Mobile ‘flash-mob dance-athon’ ad campaign. Big corporations and political leaders are exploiting anti-establishment imagery in order to claim that they are not themselves the establishment.
DAN: Back to motivation: The evolution of motivation/work seems to have gone from “get up and do what you need to do to live” (caveman) to “do it for someone else, provided they give you enough pay” (basic “carrot” work model) to “do what gives you a sense of purpose, autonomy and freedom, whilst getting paid for it” (“motivation 3.0”, the subject of this interview). What do you see as the next trend in motivation/work? How will things change in the future?
ELIANE: I’m quite pessimistic about work in the future, in the sense that I think there are big changes ahead and that existing ways of doing things are going to break down. In the age of austerity and economic contraction, unemployment is high and job prospects are poor. Those management values of motivation 3.0 are increasingly being applied in the low-pay, low-status sector: in call-centres and vast dehumanised Amazon warehouses. Our pay is stagnating and our job security is being eroded, but the management language is getting more and more focused on “fulfillment”. This is creating a kind of tragic irony. The other big change that’s happening is that a great deal of professional and creative work, like journalism and writing, is going online, and those workers are not being paid for their work. They are supposed to produce their creative or journalistic work for the love of it. This I regard as a really corrosive trend, because fulfillment is increasingly regarded not as a counterpart to pay, but as a replacement for it.
Eliane Glaser is a writer for the Guardian and others, BBC producer, associate research fellow at Birkbeck and the author of “Get Real: How to see through the hype, spin and lies of modern life” which is published by Fourth Estate. She is based in London, UK and you can read see her press cuttings here: http://elianeglaser.blogspot.co.uk/p/press-cuttings.html
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Phaedrus remembered reading about an experiment with special glasses that made users see everything upside down and backwards. Soon their minds adjusted and they began to see the world “normally” again. After a few weeks, when the glasses were removed, the subjects again saw everything upside down again and had to relearn the vision they had taken for granted before.
(excerpt from the philosophical novel “Lila” by Robert M. Pirsig)
In any culture, business or organisation the glasses we wear affect the way we see things. I wrote about this is my blog-post on Active Empathy, noting that we need to be able to put our go in check in order to really show empathy to other people.
In the excerpt above, Pirsig talks about the impact of time on the way our glasses shape the world. After while, our minds adapt to what was at first backwards and upside down. The same is true in business and other organisations. The question is: How can we take the glasses off?
I recently had a training participant in a course on “Proactive behaviour”. She was new to the company and came with her own special glasses, the ones she had formed in her previous company. She encountered 3 major “difficulties”:
- She couldn’t really see things the same way her new colleagues did – she disagreed with much off what she saw and heard
- She had difficulty getting herself heard; her new colleagues couldn’t see past their own glasses
- She wasn’t really truly aware of the impact of her own glasses on her perception of her new environment. She found it difficult to “be fresh” or open-minded
In “Four Hour Work Week”, Tim Ferriss tells us to “kill our sacred cows”. These are the assumptions that we have which form the way we operate and do business. In India, a sacred cow can stop traffic and in some cultures, the sacred cow would never be eaten, even when starving. Ferriss talks about how his own assumptions about the way to do business were crippling his ability for growth. His glasses were the problem. Pirsig says the same thing, although in a slightly more philosophical manner: “In any hierarchical (metaphysical) classification, the most important division is the first one, for this division dominates everything beneath it. If the first division is bad, there is no way you can ever build a good system (of classification) around it.”
If we want to innovate, develop, grow and do things differently, we need to be able to kill our sacred cows. To do this, we need to be able to see our glasses for what they really are. And this is tough.
On a high-level, 2 approaches to first identifying sacred cows may be of use:
- Go out in the world and look at how other people are doing things – although you will probably do this with your own glasses on, it can still help you to see what you are taking for granted in your own system
- Get someone from outside to come in to your own organisation and LISTEN to what they have to save
Personally, I find it easy to just ask a few good questions to understand where the sacred cows are:
- What do you absolutely believe to be true about the way you operate?
- Which people and processes can you NOT live without and why?
- In all the business you do, what 3 elements always seem to be present?
- If an outsider came into your culture and told you to stop doing certain things, what would you really hate to hear from him?
The answers to these questions may be an indication of the kinds of assumptions, glasses and sacred cows that are helping to run your business. But they may equally be the things that are stopping the traffic, development and innovation.
The question is: What are you going to do about it?
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