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Meaningful Work?


If we are seeking to create a more humane world, then we need to create workplaces that bring out and cultivate our true humanness. This requires that we make the workplace more meaningful. To create the possibility of meaningful work we must do two things. We must eliminate the distractions that prevent this deeper humanness from manifesting, and we must understand what the humanness in us finds meaningful. It seems that that “true self” in

us requires certain conditions to present itself at all let alone become a permanent feature in our everyday lives.


“Flow” At Work


The work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi provides an invaluable insight into how to design work in a way that human beings find meaningful. His work revolves around the concept of “Flow” which he defines as “the psychology of optimal experience.”


It is what the sailor holding a tight course feels when the wind whips through her hair, when the boat lunges through waves like a colt - sails, hull, wind, and sea humming a harmony that vibrates in the sailor’s veins. It is what a painter feels when the colors on the canvas begin to set up a magnetic tension with each other, and a new thing, a living form takes shape in form of the astonished creator. Or it is the feeling a father has when his child for the first time responds to his smile. (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990)


The concept of Flow encompasses a vast range of human experience. It addresses the pinnacle of human performance. Csikszentmihalyi describes Flow as central to human happiness, achieved through the “ordering of consciousness” which enables rapid growth, learning and developing into “a more complex being.” He describes the opposite pole of this ordering of consciousness the absence of inner order, as “ontological anxiety,” and “existential dread,” a feeling that there is no meaning to life, and that life is not worth living.


This fundamental unhappiness, this dread is, unfortunately, not an uncommon situation in the workplace. There is a strong tendency to make work a misery instead of a joy. It is for this reason that the work on Flow is so important to understanding how to design a workplace that is meaningful, that brings out the best in people.


Csikzentmihaly points out that activities which encourage the experience of Flow are “autotelic,” meaning, “self-reinforcing.” Typically, people will pay to engage in such activities. Correspondingly, the individual who has developed the capacity to experience Flow intentionally in a variety of circumstances is described as possessing an “autotelic personality.” Research has identified the circumstances required to encourage Flow. In essence, these are “game-like conditions” which include:


A sense that one’s skills are adequate to cope with the challenges at hand, in a goal directed, rule bound action system that provides clear cues as to how well one is performing. Concentration is so intense that there is no attention left over to think about anything irrelevant, or to worry about problems. Self consciousness disappears, and the sense of time becomes distorted. An activity that produces such experiences is so gratifying that people are willing to do it for its own sake, with little concern for what they will get out of it, even when it is difficult, or dangerous. (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990)


Some fundamental principles that we might then employ in designing a workplace for Flow would then include:

  • Purpose and Goals: A clear understanding of the purpose and goals of the work. This would include both the ultimate outcome desired, and the specific activities required of the individual to support successful achievement of the goal.

  • Performance Feedback: Clear performance feedback, or a scoreboard. Without feedback it is impossible to know if one is succeeding and improving.

  • Concentration: Design of the job and the workplace in a manner that limits unnecessary distractions and enables intense concentration on the task at hand.

  • Skills-Challenge Match: A proper and evolving match between skills and challenge, achieved through career pathing and training and development support.

Csikszentmihalyi provides a classic example of a worplace designed in this way; the operating room. Surgery is well known as one of the most compelling, attractive and satisfying jobs. Consider the design of the work of the surgeon. The purpose and goals of surgery are very clearly defined, and every action of every member of the surgical team is precisely defined, explained, trained and practiced.


Every conceivable aspect of pre-op, the operating room and post-op is carefully monitored, measured, and fed back to the surgical team on a real time basis. The operating room itself and the process of preparing for and executing the procedure is all designed to eliminate unnecessary distractions and support intense focus, taking on the character of a ritual event.


In surgery, great care is taken to balance the relationship between skill and risk, and there is in surgery the opportunity for a surgeon to select, in his or her choice of specialty, the degree of risk desired, and then prepare in a systematic manner to meet that risk.

In my experience, most organizations do a very poor job of fulfilling these principles. Commonly:

  • Purpose and Goals: Employees often do not understand the goals of the organization, what is required for the organization to be successful, or how their individual job supports the success of the organization.

  • Performance Feedback: Although the organization may measure overall outcomes, there are seldom measures of individual performance, or targets for desirable performance, and whatever measures there are, are seldom fed back to employees in a timely manner. Many employees seldom receive even an annual performance evaluation that is in any way valid or meaningful.

  • Concentration: The typical modern workplace is virtually awash with distraction. I recently saw a statistic suggesting that the average worker is interrupted by another worker about every eleven minutes. Recently there have been experiments in some companies with “email free Fridays” which appear to provide a powerful and much appreciated opportunity to focus and get work done.

  • Skills-Challenge Match: Finally, the balance between challenge and skill is often not managed well. The degree of change and chaos prevalent in the modern organization makes it very difficult to define career paths, discuss career options, provide training and development, and assist employees in staying challenged, but avoid the debilitating effects of excessive anxiety.

Some organizations manage to completely obliterate the possibility of Flow. This commonly occurs in government. A classic example I have encountered is our local Department of Motor Vehicles. Have you had the experience of attempting a transaction at the counter of a local DMV, only to find out you are missing a document? Then you return and discover you are missing yet another document, not previously disclosed. I found myself wondering on one of these occasions if, just possibly, the counter service person had done this intentionally.


Then I heard from an associate of his work with a local DMV. His mission was to improve their customer service. He discovered something, which they called, the “No Club.” It turns out, the counter personnel could become a member of the “No Club” if they routinely turned customers away three times before processing their transaction.


Looking into the background of this astounding situation, my associate discovered the following features of the workplace:

  • The service lobby was not air conditioned, hot, it was too small for the number of customers who routinely showed up, and there was no place to sit. Therefore it was almost a guarantee that, by the time customers reached the service counter, they were in a bad mood, and often behaved in a manner that “justified” the service person intentionally turning them away empty handed.

  • The work process was chaotic and ill defined. There were no goals set for service outcomes, nothing was measured, and the employees were given no performance feedback. There were no standards of service performance set, and there were no consequences for poor service performance.

  • The supervisors of the service personnel did not appear to care about the staff, the work conditions, the performance of the people they supervised, or the service provided.

The interesting thing about this example is, it appears that the response of the service personnel was to create a game to make their work interesting which revolved around a personal identity, a person who regularly victimizes customers by repeatedly saying “no”.

This example suggests an important principle; if you don’t give people at work a good game, they will invent their own, and often the game they invent will not be good for the business. They will make a game to see how little they can get away with doing, how late they can arrive, how early they can leave, how they can maximize overtime, steal in some other way, or victimize other employees or customers.


The Value of “Flow”


The reason Flow is so compelling is, it provides an opportunity to discover our “selves,” to experience who we are and what we are becoming. The positive experience of Flow results, as Csikszentmihalyi puts it in a self that grows by becoming more complex. This complexity is achieved through increased differentiation and integration. He says:


Differentiation implies a movement toward uniqueness, toward separating oneself from others. Integration refers to the opposite: a union with other people, with ideas,and entities beyond the self. A complex self is one that succeeds in combining these opposite tendencies. (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990)


The experience of flow results in a self perception of increased capability, even wonder at what one has accomplished. Typically Flow results in deeper understanding, enhanced skills, and increased cofidence. At the same time, Flow produces greater integration with the world. If we experience Flow working in a team working in a team with others, we feel more connected to them. If the Flow experience pertains to ideas, then the intgration of our understanding is deepened.


It is also worth noting that the experience of Flow has tremendous power to combat the negative effects of stress. Flow is charaterized by a state of a highly concentrated and ordered state of consciousness. This ordering of consciousness is experienced as a sense of control, and the ability to gain a sense of control is probably the most powerful way to transform a stressful situation into an opportunity to overcome an exciting challenge.

We have considered the elements of an autotelic worplace, whereby the stressful can be experienced as the exctiting and challenging. We have not, however considered the elements of the autotelic personality which can guide us in our approach to any life situation.


In describing the autotelic personality, Csikszentmihalyi describes several examples of people whose jobs are unglamorous, simple, routine, which would seem quite boring to many. His description points not to the content or process of the work, but rather the quality of attention that the autotelic person brings to the work.


A gradual focussing of attention on the opportunities for action in one’s environment…transformed the jobs they had to do into complex activities… by recognizing opportuities for action where others did not, by developing skills. By focusing on the activity at hand, and allowing themselves to be lost in the interaction so that their selves could emerge stronger afterward. (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990) p.151.


According to the Csikszentmihalyi, the autotelic personality can be cultivated by following the following principles:

  • Set and pursue goals, monitor success and reset the goals as required.

  • Become immersed in your chosen activity. This is made possible by choosing actiities that have the appropriate balance of challenge and skill to avoid the extremes of boredome and anxiety, and by being sensitive to feedback from the focus of activity.

  • Pay attention to what is happening. Cultivate the capacity for sustained attention, focusing on the activity, and not oneself.

  • Learn to enjoy immediate experience as an end in itself, no matter what the circumstances are.

Our pursuit of organizations that bring out the best in people depends on seeking ways to design work so the expericence of Flow is possible, to select for people who exhibit the autotelic personality and to train people to cultivate the autotelic approach to life and work.


It seems that the key to meaningful work- consists of a set of internal and external conditions, an inner posture, attitude or skill, and a certain configuration of the work itself, that makes it possible for the worker to discover him or herself in the work. In essence this means finding ways that our unique gifts make a difference in the world through our efforts.


Through our work, we externalize and discover what is within us, what we really are, what it really is to be human. Whether this discovery is made in joy of action, of thought, or relationship, in analysis, or construction, or art or healing, the worker attains deep satisfaction and fulfillment in the adventure of Self discovery.


The Person – Job Fit


The pursuit of self in work is also the pursuit of wholeness. We seek not only to become more complex and integrated, but also to explore and complete all the dimensions of our human potentiality. This wholeness can be mapped in a variety of ways such as cultural values, native abilities, and personality types. One of the most illuminating maps of the human potential comes from the work of Carl Jung.


Jung identified four primary functions through which human beings relate to life. These are sensing, feeling, thinking, and intuiting. Although we all posess these four functions, we each prioritize the application of each function in a particular way.

  • We may rely sensing and thinking, resulting in a very fact based, rational approach to life. Such a person is best matched with a job in which this preference is fully utilized through rational analysis of fact.

  • Another may rely feeling and intuiting. This person will enter deeply into the inner life of others, and likely prosper in work that assists others in developing toward the fulfllment of their potential.

  • A third may rely on intuiting and thinking, resulting in a very rational approach to pursuing future possibiities which might best be pursued in a job that plans and designs the future.

  • A fourth may rely on sensing and feeling, resulting in a very practical approach to helping other people, for instance through social work, teaching or coaching.

There are many resources available to assist the reader in applying this idea, from books and articles to very sophisticated testing and job design systems. The purpose here is not to explore those options, but instead to make the point that this business of matching individuals to jobs is a profoundly important and fundamental element of designing meaningful jobs that bring out the best in people.


Consider, for instance the person who is primarily oriented to “sensing”. This is an individual who is most likely to flourish in work that is concrete and physical, involving the senses and physical action in the world. Put them in a job that involves a significant requirement for the abstract, and the individual is likely to find it very difficult to focus, to be involved, and to attain any degree of Flow.


In contrast, the individual whose preference is for intuiting will be most able to fuction in a job which is focused on the abstract, on pursuing the potential, on synthesis and integration of a variety of elements. Put them in a job which requires an intense focus on the sensory and actual, and they are likely to feel unfulfilled, and struggle to focus and succeed.


The thinker needs a job that will allow the use of the rational mind, that will allow for analysis, reason, and computation. Put them in a job that does not use this capacity and you will probaby find that they will use their unused potential on the job in some way of their own choosing. And the consequences may be constructive or not.


Feelers need jobs that provide rich opportunities for interaction with others. Put them in an isolated position and you will see them wither and become emotionally flat.


By this point you may be thinkiing “this sounds like a very rigid approach to job placement”, and you would be right. Often we don’t have the option to make such perfect job placements, and ultimately people need to develop outside their preference in order to meet the challenges of their work, as well as to pursue the goal of increased differentiation and integration of self.


Jung’s work and that of Myers and Briggs provide a wonderful model for understanding the paradoxical nature of human development. It seems we are all born with certain preferences, we are born incomplete. Life provides us the opportunity to refine our strengths and to develop our less preferred functions. Work presents challenges to learn and develop. It is not enough to be a great senser. We also have to be able to get along with other people. It is not enough to be great relating to other people. We also need to get the facts right and be able to perform in the physical world.


A workplace that brings out the best in people is built on this understanding, that everybody in the workplace has something to work on, and as life progresses, we encounter ever more possibilities to learn and develop. The autotelic workplace is built on this assumption of learning and development, sometimes called the learning orgnization.


Some of the worst examples of dysfunctionality that I have encountered were in organizations where the concept of continuous development was absent. The most toxic example is where a particular class of employee, for example the leadership, or in a hospital, the physicians, or the attoneys in a law firm, or the employees who are protected by a very hostile union, are perceived as exempt from continuous growth and development.


When this happens, they cease to receive corrective feedback, their worst qualities begin to grow like mould in a dark closet, and they begin to develop defenses to protect themselves from their hidden feelings of guilt. They become self righteous, convinced of their own entitlement and indispensibility and sink into the routine of self justification and exploitation of their position.


The alternative is to build the worplace on the assumption of continuous learning and development, recognizing that we all have a lot to learn. We tend to be defensive about our weaknesses, so a learning organization will make it safe to “not know”, to admit a mistake, and to depend on other people. As workers we need to get over our likes and dislikes. Human experience is built on a wide range of dichotomies, and our reactive self usually has a definite position and preference on each. We prefer people or task, potential or actual, fast or slow, wide or deep, rational or feeling, and so on.


Perhaps the greatest challenge I encounter in dealing with situations that have become toxic in organizations is raising a develoment issue with an individual or individuals who have become a problem. Typically problem behaviors arise out of a learning challenge.


Such an individual has run into a situation where one of their functions needs some development, and if they are in a “protected class”, or if they are so obnoxious that no one wants to pay the price of being honest with them, then it is likely that they will not have received feedback, and the situation will have worsened to the point where it is very difficult to remedy.


We can derive several conclusions from the application of Jung’s ideas to the workplace:

  1. We all have strengths, and our best job fit is likely to be in a role that relies heavily on our strongest preferences.

  2. Every work situation demands more than just one preferred function. We will encounter needs in the worplace which draw on our less preferred functions, and as such we will need to learn, grow and develop.

  3. There is a limit to how fast we can grow and develop and we have limited time and energy, so we need other people who are strong in the area where we are not, to complement us at work.

  4. A workplace that brings out the best in people, therefore, will make efforts to fit people in jobs that suit their strengths, provide people feedback to understand when they are overusing their strength, and need to develop a less preferred function, provide training and development to support learning, and structure work in a way that a variety of people can complement each other to obtain the best work result.

Meaningful work is work that makes it possible for us to experience who and what we are as an evolving human being. This exploration takes a variety of routes depending on our preferred functions as well as the vast variety of other ways that we are different. As we set out to create organizations that bring out the best in people we have many tools such as Jung’s system of functions to fit people into appropriate work and provide the training and development support they need to continue growing and learning.

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