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We’re still struggling to get past a story of work we created 250 years ago. Our thinking didn’t get much further than the industrial revolution, when we decided to believe that workers only worked for money. We believed in that assumption so strongly that we designed work to be true – and the resulting story remains the way we understand work.
Businesses need a new model to thrive, and that starts with making different assumptions that make up a different story.
Related: How the 9-to-5 Came to Be and Why It No Longer Makes Sense (Infographic)
We told the wrong story
1776, Adam Smitheconomic theorist and founder of free-market capitalism, advanced his view of humanity in relation to work: “It is in every human being’s inherent interest to live as comfortably as possible; to be exactly the same whether or not he performs a very labour-intensive task, to carry it out in as careless and careless a manner as the authority will permit.
His view perpetuated three fundamental assumptions. First, people only work for the payoffs it brings, which is pay. Second, as long as the work brings enough rewards, it doesn’t matter what kind of work people do. Third, there must be an authority that monitors people to make sure they are doing the job.
These assumptions formed the basis of a story that shaped the way we approach business, management and work.
We began to feel the effects of this approach when we introduced machines 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 redefine work as a relationship between two machines.
Working this way required a new form of discipline as opposed to centuries of independence. People now had to concentrate for hours on one mind-numbing task and do it exactly as they were told. As business owners became engrossed in the increasingly numerous and complex tasks of running a growing business – and because they believed that employees needed constant monitoring to ensure they were doing their jobs – they developed a hierarchy of supervisors and managers.
By breaking work into pointless tasks and taking away any ability to move or think outside the standardized way, we gave people little incentive to come to work except for the salary.
And by designing work this way, we’ve delivered on Smith’s assumptions about why people work.
This story explains why many companies track their employees’ keystrokes. If employees are thoughtless cogs whose every move must be hyper-efficient, then the only way to confirm they are producing optimal output is to monitor their actions. You’re crazy to trust that your employees will do their job and do it well – after all, they’re only here for the paycheck!
This story is also the idea behind the introduction of AI in call centers. According to the Wall Street Journal, a company added an AI-powered virtual agent to their call center, making this virtual agent more human with a name and avatar. “Charlie” has analyzed a huge amount of data, so she’s not only telling the people she works with exactly what to do and how to do it, but soon she’ll be judging them on how well they do it.
We are now humanizing machines and dehumanizing people.
Related: This is the truth behind employees and meaningful work
We are stuck with the wrong mindset
To change our course, we need to stop viewing work as a transaction and adopt a goal-oriented mindset.
The way we designed work under Smith’s assumptions forced us to think of 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 purpose of doing business was to make money.
Subsequent attempts to change work are packaged in a business case that outlines how this change will help entrepreneurs earn more money. But that’s not real change; it’s just another transaction.
The problem is that the transactional mindset doesn’t work – for people or for companies.
According to Imperative Target workforce index, only 14% of people with a transactional mindset find job satisfaction, compared to 66% of people with a goal-oriented mindset. These findings are supported by Gallup’s State of the global workforceshowing that 79% of employees withdraw from their jobs.
While harmful on an individual level, a lack of engagement also means companies don’t get the best contributions from their people. That leads companies to provide poor service, develop the wrong products and delay solutions the world needs.
When business leaders sit down to solve the problem, they often approach it with the same transactional mindset that says the right combination of incentives will give them maximum output from their people – and we keep digging the same hole.
To achieve real change, we must adopt a goal-oriented mindset.
a goal-oriented mindset is a set of beliefs that enables us to optimize our lives to be fulfilled and of service. It focuses on connections, growth and impact.
When we look at work in this way, it becomes a valuable part of our lives. We no longer simply fill a position for a salary; we master the skills of our profession. We are not identical gears producing output as part of a large machine; we are individuals coming together to do something bigger than ourselves. We no longer look forward to retiring from a job we hate to do something else; we want to continue to be useful and make an impact on the world throughout our lives.
Now we do our best for our work because we know that our contributions matter. Our individual efforts are enhanced by those of our team members, and what we put into the world makes it better.
If we don’t shift from a transactional mindset to a goal-directed 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 have come to accept, we will continue to create a world with work no one wants to do and a society disconnected from work and life.
Related: How to Build More Purpose into Your Work
We need to change the way we do business
Changing the way we think is a first step, but we need to tell ourselves a new story and reshape the way we work.
This new story is based on the following assumptions. First, people work to create, to be challenged, to master their skills, to grow, to build relationships, and to contribute to something bigger than themselves. Second, because they work for reasons they care about, they can deliver quality work without being constantly scrutinized by an authority.
To deliver on these assumptions, we need to make five key changes to the way we do business:
1. Why You Exist:
The point of doing business must shift from making money to delivering value. You exist to help the people you serve do, achieve, or become something that improves their lives in a meaningful way.
You stop trying to be everything 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 goal is to deliver value. It acts as the focal point of your core strategy, serving as a lens for Everything you do. It’s no longer about throwing resources behind every idea that can make money; it’s about deliberately filtering options so that you only pursue those that align.
Work becomes meaningful because your team members understand why you do what you do.
3. How to define productive:
Instead of counting the number of hours people work or the number of keystrokes they make, track how effectively you add value.
Your goals are centered on the people you serve and what you help them achieve. You align your team members with those goals to make it clear what they’re working on. And if your actions aren’t delivering value, you adjust them.
4. How you treat people:
You recognize your people as they are: people. They are creative, thinking, passionate people who bring skills, perspective and ideas to the table. Instead of telling them what to do and how to do it, you are happy to have them create your path forward as a company with them and support them every step of the way.
You also need to prioritize your people over your machines. That means not working without technology; it means carefully 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 Handle Money:
Money is not the goal of your business. It is a means of investing in what you do and the people who do it. Money is a means to achieve your goals, deliver value and extend your reach.
The only way to do that is to generate enough profit to fund your work. You generate profit by inextricably linking the value you provide to how you make money, so that profit is the result of effectively pursuing your goal.
Many of us have given up trying to find meaning in work. More and more people quit their job, start a new one and leave again. Or they show up, but they are disabled.
It’s easy to push this trend under the weary masthead, “no one wants to work anymore,” but people are looking for a better way to work.
The problem is that the rut we tried to escape continues to haunt us.
For the past 250 years, we’ve approached work with the same mindset: We view work as a transaction and run our businesses in a way that gives people little reason to show up other than the money. Anyone who expresses a motivation other than making money is dismissed as not being seriously enterprising.
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 gives them satisfaction and we need to redesign the way we run our businesses to make that assumption true.
We can think differently about work. We can build something better. And by building something better, we can provide work that people really want to do and deliver value that the world really needs.
Why should we keep doing work that pays less?