Dig your own hole, sharpen your own shovel

In a recent post (see Deep business culture eats shallow corporate culture), I took a somewhat different path to the question of reengagement in business. It’s well known that only 30% of the respondents to a recent study considered themselves engaged at work (see Why are disengaged employees disengaged?). My argument is that the usual prescriptions for dealing with this are off center. Business has shifted the social contract with employees over the past decades, and in the interests of flexibility, adaptability, and responsiveness, management theory has shifted to a looser relationship with employees; however, management rhetoric has not shifted to match, so false loyalty exists on both sides of the company-employee relationship. As I wrote,

Imagine a time in the near future where organizational culture becomes ever more thin, as we switch to a new business ethos, a deeper one than any company — however large — can engender.

One of the primary motivations for this shift is the decreasing social contract between the company and the employee. We’re in a time when everyone is acknowledging the inutility of the false loyalties of business. The company wants loyal employees, but treats them as expendable in a downturn. Employees say they are committed to the company’s five year plan, but in secret disbelieve, and plan to take other work as soon as something better comes along. In such a climate, individuals are unlikely to take on the cultural trappings of an organization when they have little expectation of long-term employment, and companies have small incentives to grow their staff, or invest in their futures.

And, at the same time, people are increasingly likely to affiliate with others who share aspirations for personal development, and a shared belief that the most central goals have to be striving for mastery in your work, the autonomy to pursue and apply mastery, and gaining the regard of those that you respect. And those principles transcend any specific job or company, and the network of connections that encompasses those that we respect reaches past the walls of the business.

In this light, the re-engagement of the workforce is not likely to arise by management inducements to refocus workers’ attention on the company’s goals, at least not at first. We will first have to agree — as individuals, leaders, and organizations — that each person must re-engage with their own work.

I intend to explore the theme of a new ethos animating the deep culture of business in a series of posts over the coming weeks and perhaps months, this can be considered the next in that series.

The answer to this riddle of disengagement is not a turning back the clock to 1950s and The Man In The Gray Flannel Suit, nor is it a massively flattened world in which everyone is a freelancer with completely opportunistic allegiances. However, changes should be made to make sense of what is now a broken compact. The answer is a new balance, where we acknowledge the cultural change that has occurred, and actively work to reengage with our own work, rather than pretend that our first priority is to subordinate ourselves to the goals of the company at all times and at all costs, which is regrettably the hypothetical norm today.

The first principle of deep culture must be that all work is personal, and as a result, each individual must start with engagement with their own work. Only then can they apply that focus — as a marketer, customer support lead, programmer, or auto mechanic — to advance the ends of the business.

Leaders, entrepreneurs, and business owners will need to step up to this new ethos of work, and stop demanding unearned loyalty and subservience from employees. That’s the model that has led us to the current status quo. It doesn’t work, and intensification will most likely only increase levels of disengagement.

One example of the broken work compact is the unwillingness of today’s employers to train workers. I’ve written about this in the past (see Business and academia pointing fingers: who’s responsible for graduates’ readiness?), where I quote Richard Stevens, a senior vice president of HR at Boeing,

“To expect business to bring graduates up to speed,” he says, “that’s too much to ask.”

The new normal is that workers either have already received the training needed for their work, or they will gain it on the job, while working, or on their own time. Fine. So we just have to make it clear that there is ‘own’ time and that workers should have the freedom to decide how it should be invested.

This is not a demand for a 20% project, or attending company-approved training courses. This is where a truce has to be called and each individual commits to personal program of engagement in what they consider their calling, which may only obliquely line up with the job that the company has that person doing. This involves reading, reflection, discussions with other like-minded people, and sharing and growing those thoughts in groups, offline and online. My expression for this investment, where the individual reengages with their own work, in a sense independently of the company (or companies) they may be working for, is this:

Dig your own hole, sharpen your own shovel.

And this will involve time. Each person will have to carve out time for this engagement: it won’t just happen. Where will it come from? I think a fertile place to start should be a transition from corporativity: the time wasted in activities hypothetically needed by the company but which are huge time wasters. Status update meetings because the head of marketing doesn’t like Yammer, even though everyone else is using it. Endless emails send to long cc lists, just in case. Heat loss is baked into inefficient and obsolete communication conventions.

The most fertile ground for clearing away the underbrush is for each of is to prioritize, and to make cull out the urgent but unimportant tasks clamoring for our attention, and which steal our time for little payback. 90% of respondents to a recent Linkedin survey said they could not get through their to-do lists everyday. They need to start filtering out the unimportant piecework. After the urgent and important work, we should be focussed on the non-urgent but important. This is where shovel sharpening takes place.

This determination to cull the unimportant must be judged by the litmus test of our own appreciation of the work’s importance relative to other things we are committed to doing, based on existing commitments to others and ourselves. And the new rebalancing — that all work is personal — means we, each on a personal level, have to chose the work we do, if personal and company engagement is going to be aligned. Any other course leads to continued disengagement, or soulless drones.