Meaningful work has never been so important

World of people doing meaningful work

I'd like to buy the world a Coke and keep it company.  - The Coca-Cola  Company (1971)

Thesis: In response to a convergence of existential threats, we are now living in, and living out, an age of transcendence. Meaningful work has never been so important.

Key points:

  1. This author has seen a surge in demand for “meaningful work.”
  2. Research supports anecdote with constructs such as “calling” in career counseling.
  3. {Of note, I/O psychology terminology and research have evolved along an increasingly spiritual journey.}
  4. Transcendence, the core of meaningful work, is argued to be the current Zeitgeist, supported by four examples:
    1. Global stressors have led many to re-examine their lives and values.
    2. The pandemic, via WFH, has led many to take a critical review of their job.
    3. Millennials want jobs that provide a sense of purpose, value.
    4. Technology is now replacing knowledge workers driving the workforce toward humanistic jobs.
  5. Meaningful work must keep pace with global and individual needs and trends.
  6. This is not only being done (see #4), it’s doable. (No grammar issue)
  7. Most of the time, it’s up to leadership to make this happen.

A confluence of forces has led to radical change with exceptional impact on the world of work. Some, including myself, find the term “change” -- at least as a matter of degree or evolution -- to be completely “off mark.” We’re living in a new world, not a changed one as evident in so many ways.

One work-related result of this ‘break’ is less obvious due to its covert, psychological nature. {But not to me, mostly because people tell me so.}

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Workforce predictions for 2021

Worforce predictions for 2021 should keep the dream of MLK alive

It’s no coincidence that I release my workforce predictions for 2021 on Martin Luther King, Jr Day, a day of hope. Despite all of the uncertainty and chaos lapsing into this new year from last, there are signs of hope – some still faint, but others more apparent. Much of 2021 will be about fixing what went wrong in a most tumultuous 2020. But we’ve a lot more awareness of those problems and that’s where rehabilitation starts. Plus, the fact that you’re reading this means you weathered the most chaos one year has dumped for decades. As my grad school professor and mentor used to say, “Hope springs eternal.”

But I’m not in denial. There are still many, complex and critical issues that don’t (and didn’t) magically “go away” with a new calendar. In statistical terminology, we still have a number of “main effects” exerting considerable and all-encompassing influence on human behavior – including work and the way it’s conducted. Among the most impactful are,

    1. a relentless, growing, global pandemic that’s been around for over a year,
    2. a hyper-polarized, angry, and increasingly aggressive, US population divided on, and driven by, political ideology,
    3. a dramatic increase in technology-enabled communication (substantially driven by #1)
    4. an increase in technology “hacks,” breaching data and disrupting infrastructure,
    5. massive unemployment (substantially driven by #1)

These aren’t independent of each other, as noted for a couple, but true of all. Nevertheless, each of these (i.e., 2-5) has evolved as formidable and life changing forces that now exist beyond the pandemic (i.e., they would continue even if the pandemic magically “went away”). Moreover, these main effects have predictable, if not already commenced, domino effects.

So, yes, some predictions for 2021 are almost “no-brainers” because we’ve already seen some of the effects they have had, and will have, for some time.

On the other hand, the impacts of these “main effects,” may not have fully revealed their potential for even further disruption, or mitigation, thus making predictions also tenuous. {I’ve started this list three times since the new year for just this reason.}

Nevertheless, regardless of this era in which we've witnessed the emergence of nearly instantaneous, global chaos, one has to put a stake in the ground.

So, these are my workforce predictions for 2021:

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The Dark Side of Passion at Work

Passion at work is like a love story with a dirty secret

Passion at work is not only about workplace romance - which is a complex problem that HR WILL investigate. In a non-romantic capacity, being passionate about one’s work is widely recognized as one of the most desirable aspects of employment. To be rewarded, not by external means such as money or promotions, but rather by appeal to the intrinsic value of meaningful work is the ultimate state of work motivation. On Maslow’s pyramid this equates to the pinnacle of motivation known as “self-actualization.” Everything is beautiful when one enjoys complete passion at work. Right?

Not necessarily, according to recent studies.

There is a dark side to the experience of being highly passionate about one’s work. Maybe you’ve experienced it – or exploited it.

The phenomenon is called “legitimization of passion exploitation” and it falls under the broad umbrella of cognitive dissonance, or rationalization. It occurs when some unsavory or demeaning task is handed to an employee because they are so passionate about their work that they won’t be bothered. Examples include being asked (forced) to work extra hours without pay, or to carry out undesirable tasks that have no legitimate relationship to the worker’s job. In the boss’ mind these are trivial matters because the passionate worker is so motivated, they would do just about anything simply out of their “love” for their work.

From a phenomenological standpoint, it can be readily apparent to a passionate employee when they are being “overused,” but it’s unknown to the boss who imposes such demands. As mentioned, cognitive dissonance results in the boss thinking to themselves, “They love their work so much, they will be glad to work a few extra hours” or “they’ll appreciate coming to another team dinner this evening,” etc.

So, while passionate work may be arguably the greatest reward for people at work, it also can have a downside.

How do we handle this?

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