What’s the opposite of a zombie?

I still remember where I was when he used the word to describe many of our colleagues. We were leaving the office after a meeting, and the regional head of our division was talking about what he saw in the lobby at work each day.

“You look around,” he said, “and there’s no spark. They’re like zombies.” 

He wasn’t saying they were untalented or weren’t good people. Just that he noticed a palpable lack of energy. They were going through the motions of work but exhibited a kind of lifelessness.

What would the opposite of that be, and how might you help more people feel like that instead?

In Alive at Work, Professor or Organizational Behavior Dan Cable described his research on the topic, including an experiment involving the on-boarding of new employees at a Wipro call center in India. (The experiment was also popularized in The Culture Code by Dan Coyle, and replicated in other environments.)

New hires were randomly assigned to one of three groups. The first group went through the traditional Wipro orientation, which focused on skills training. The second went through an orientation in which a senior leader talked about the company, asked newcomers to reflect on why they might be proud to work at Wipro, and gave them a Wipro-branded sweatshirt. In the third condition, the new employees were asked about “times they used their best characteristics” and then ask to share their personal stories with other new employees in the group. At the end of the session, they were given a sweatshirt with their name on it. 

Six months later, the researchers found that the employees in the third condition had significantly higher customer satisfaction ratings, and employee retention in the group was better by 32%.

Dan Cable calls the approach and the feelings it engenders “activating your best self.” The founder of positive psychology, Martin Seligman, calls the feeling “zest, a positive trait reflecting a person’s approach to life with anticipation, energy, and excitement.” In Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity, David Whyte describes it as a feeling of vitality.

Companies need the contributing vitality of all the individuals who work for them in order to stay alive in the sea of changeability in which they find themselves. They must find a real way of asking people to bring these hidden heartfelt qualities to the workplace. A way that doesn’t make them feel manipulated or the subject of some 5 year plan. 

What the on-boarding research shows is that even small efforts which individuate employees and humanize a company can lead to measurable business benefits.  (“But in all my years of working with companies,” Dan Cable writes, “I have not seen a company use this approach.”)

One of my goals in spreading Working Out Loud is to show we don’t need to be limited to research experiments or to a few techniques in the first days at a company. We can help employees activate their best selves on their own, throughout their career, so instead of zombies at work we have more people feeling fully alive.

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What happened to “Working” in the last 45 years

I vaguely remember when Working came out. It was 1972. I was 8 years old. Calculators were becoming popular, and people were just starting to talk about computers.

The subtitle of the book is “People talk about what they do all day and how they feel about what they do.” It’s based on over 100 interviews with people in a wide range of jobs across the US - from gravedigger to TV executive, and consists almost entirely of the words of those people. (You can also listen to the original audio recordings.)

Despite all of the changes since those interviews over four decades ago years ago, many of the themes remain the same. Perhaps primarily, there was the need to make a difference, a search for meaning.

“I think most of us are looking for a calling, not a job. Most of us…have jobs that are too small for our spirit. Jobs are not big enough for people.”
“You know you’re not doing anything, not doing a hell of a lot for anyone. Your job doesn’t mean anything. Because you’re just a little machine. A monkey could do what I do . It’s really unfair to ask someone to do that.”
“A man’s life is his work. You see humanity in a chair. It was made by some man’s hand. There’s artistry in that, and that’s what makes mankind happier. You work out of necessity, but in your work, you gotta have a little artistry too.”

Many people expressed the feeling of not being treated or respected as a full human being, 

“That’s the thing you get in any business. They never talk about personal feelings. They let you know that people are of no consequence.”
“They call us professional people but they talk to us as very young, childishly. They check on us all the time.”
“These big corporations are gonna keep on growing and the people become less and less. The human being doesn’t count any more.”

Even back then, there was an awareness of the threat of technology, of dehumanization.

“You won’t know their names…You have a number - mine’s 407. You’re just an instrument.”
“It was almost like a production line. We adjusted to the machine. The last three or four years were horrible. The computer had arrived….I had no free will. I was just part of the stupid computer.”

As a result, many people felt stuck, like they had little control and few options.

“I don’t know what I’d like to do. That’s what hurts the most. That’s why I can’t quit the job. I really don’t know what talents I may have. And I don’t know where to go to find out.”

Do these themes sound familiar to you? Our needs for feeling effective and fulfilled - for meaning - aren't new. Helping people fulfill those needs is as important as ever.

I thought work wasn’t supposed to be like this

I still remember a response to one of my earliest posts, one about finding meaning and fulfillment at work. “You’re nuts,” she wrote. “People go to work for money. They go home for meaning and fulfillment.”

I’ve thought about that for years. What if she was right, and I was encouraging people to try anddiscover something that work simply wasn’t designed to offer? How cruel that would be.

Fast forward several years. I’m laying on a yoga mat in an office in a large manufacturing company in Germany. A group of us had worked together for the last three days, and much of it was quite intense. Before my trip, I happened to know that one of them was a yoga instructor. (We were connected on Instagram and other channels, even those of us who barely knew each other.) I half-kiddingly suggested that we have a class after work on Friday. Others responded, and there we were, in a wide array of yoga attire, on our mats among the chairs and flip charts. The class was beautiful, almost spiritual. Afterwards, we hugged each other goodbye.

This kind of connection happened throughout the week. Instead of just small talk in between meetings, we talked about personal aspirations and life experiences. We discovered shared interests as well as new possibilities for how we might collaborate and innovate. By deepening relationships, we changed the very nature of the work we were doing as well as what we might do together in the future.

Oh, and we ate together and laughed. A lot. 

It's true that these particular people are extraordinary. And yet I’ve had similar experiences with other people in other cities in other companies. I’ve observed tremendous generosity and vulnerability, creativity and intelligence, in their work with me as well as with their colleagues. It's those behaviors that lead to meaning and fulfillment.

Once we shed the facade of cool professionalism, we were able to develop a sense of relatedness that opened up all sorts of wonderful possibilities. 

It wasn't just work or just personal. It was human - and it was beautiful.

Announcing ikigai, LLC

Four weeks after my last day working in a big corporation, I formed my own company: ikigai, LLC. It’s named after a Japanese word meaning “a reason to get up in the morning.”

I wrote about it in the final chapter of Working Out Loud titled “Finding your ikigai.” 

“I first heard the word “ikigai” in a talk about the secrets of living a longer, healthier life. A team of researchers investigated communities around the world that had high concentrations of people one hundred years old or older. The talk was about nine factors that contributed to such longevity, including what people ate, how they exercised, and how they maintained their social connections. One of the locations was Okinawa, a string of islands at the southern tip of Japan, and one of the factors was a sense of purpose, which the Okinawans called their ikigai.
Listening to the talk made me wonder, 'What’s my ikigai?'”

I think I found it. It’s enabling people to access a better career and life and helping them feel good while they do it. 

“Better” will mean different things for different people. Some will become more effective, or make work more fulfilling inside their organization. Some will build a sense of communion with others towards a shared purpose, or start a new chapter in their lives. Some will feel more open, generous, and connected, and enjoy each day a bit more.

My aspiration is that my one-person company and a community of practitioners around the world will inspire people to think “What’s my ikigai?” - and help them discover an answer.



What millenials want at work

The quotation marks in the Wall Street Journal article seemed to drip sarcasm.

“Millenial experts.” If there was any doubt about the author’s attitude towards them, the word “upstart” made it clear, as did citing the ages of the distinctly non-millenial people offering highly-paid advice. A few weeks later, the NY Times followed up with a similar article, “Corporate America Chases the Mythical Millennial.” 

But whether millenials are different or not misses the bigger questions. What does anyone of any age want at work? And how do we give it to them?

Data on what works

The People Analytics team at Google have been analyzing what makes for a more effective team, and they published some of their findings in November. In short, they found that “Who is on a team matters less than how the team members interact, structure their work, and view their contributions.” They identified five things that set successful teams apart.

Psychological safety: Can we take risks on this team without feeling insecure or embarrassed?
Dependability: Can we count on each other to do high quality work on time?
Structure & clarity: Are goals, roles, and execution plans on our team clear?
Meaning of work: Are we working on something that is personally important for each of us?
Impact of work: Do we fundamentally believe that the work we’re doing matters?
Psychological safety was far and away the most important of the five dynamics we found -- it’s the underpinning of the other four. How could that be? Taking a risk around your team members seems simple. But remember the last time you were working on a project. Did you feel like you could ask what the goal was without the risk of sounding like you’re the only one out of the loop? Or did you opt for continuing without clarifying anything, in order to avoid being perceived as someone who is unaware?”

What we all want

Laszlo Bock, the head of People Operations at Google and author of the excellent book, Work Rules!, talked about the research on what millennials want.

“We measure this sort of thing closely, and if you look at what their underlying needs and aspirations are, there’s no difference at all between this new generation of workers and my generation and my father’s generation.”

What will make a difference in an organization isn’t divining the needs and wants of any particular demographic, it’s figuring out how to get the universal basics in place, as Bock describes them in the same article.

“Every single human being wants the same thing in the workplace — we want to be treated with respect, we want to have a sense of meaning and agency and impact, and we want our boss to just leave us alone so we can get our work done.”

If you can make $20,000 an hour talking about what millenials want and need in the workplaces of the future, that’s great.

If you can actually spread the behaviors that create those workplaces, that’s priceless.

For a better career and life

The subtitle of Working Out Loud is “For a better career and life.”But what is better, exactly? Better is not an objective measure according to someone else’s standards. It simply means improving your career and life in a way you care about, a way that’s meaningful for you.

What does better mean for you?

What does better mean for you?

The book describes two ways to improve your odds of feeling better about work. One way is to change your approach to your current job, increasing your sense of control, learning, and relatedness so you tap into your intrinsic motivation or drive. Another way is to build a network that gives you access to other jobs - a different role, boss, company, or kind of work - where it might be easier for you to tap into your drive.

Changing your approach to your current job

In a paper titled, “Crafting a job: revisioning employees as active crafters of their work,” researchers interviewed people in a wide range of jobs including engineers, nurses, and restaurant staff. They found that even people in highly prescribed jobs could make changes that would fundamentally alter their view of what they did.

Job crafting changes the meaning of the work by changing job tasks or relationships in ways that allow employees to reframe the purpose of the job and experience the work differently. Psychological meaningfulness of work results when people feel worthwhile and valuable at work. Thus, any actions that employees take to alter their jobs in ways that increase feelings of purpose are likely change the meaning of the work. 

The nurse’s handbook, for example, might have very specific guidelines for how to do a certain procedure. But some nurses viewed themselves as patient advocates, taking extra time to inform and comfort patients and their families, and they felt better about their work as a result. The short-order cook who had to follow recipes felt better when he took extra steps to “create a product worthy of pride.” Computer engineers felt better when they offered help to colleagues.

While some people viewed their job as carrying out instructions, others proactively altered aspects of the job related to learning and how they interacted with people. Same jobs. Different approach. They crafted their jobs to tap into their own intrinsic motivators - competence, autonomy, and relatedness – and they felt better about work than those who didn’t.

Building a network that gives you access to other jobs

While you might be able to tap into your drive even in terrible conditions, it’s easier to do so in some environments than others. For example, some jobs might have more opportunities for learning or some companies might have a more nurturing, respectful culture. To increase your chances of moving to a better environment, you have to first discover those environments and then have some means of accessing them. The best way to do this is via other people.

In 1973, Mark Granovetter analyzed the flow of information through social networks, and “The Strength of Weak Ties” went on to become the most-cited paper in all of social science. The title was based on his assertion that people to whom we are weakly tied have different information than we normally receive because they move in different circles than our close ties. That information can be critical to us, and the example he used was finding jobs. He cited a range of studies showing that people find out about jobs through personal contacts more than any other method. Then he conducted a study of his own and found that information that led to people finding new jobs came via people they barely knew or via the contacts of those people. Though close friends and family might be more motivated to help you find a job, being able to access different information from weak ties was much more important. He noted how luck played a role in interacting with weak ties.

Chance meetings or mutual friends operated to reactivate such ties. It is remarkable that people receive crucial information from individuals whose very existence they have forgotten.

More than 33 years before Facebook was launched, Granovetter showed that having a larger, more diverse social network would improve your luck, increasing your knowledge about a broader set of possibilities and enhancing your ability to access them.

Making your own luck

Most people I speak with understand that building a certain kind of network can give themselves access to a much wider range of choices. They may even realize they can change their approach to their current job and feel better about it. But few people know how to change their approach or build their network, and so they leave their career and life to chance.

You can do better, and that’s why I wrote the book. I found that even a bad day at work can be transformed when I apply the elements of working out loud. The feeling of greater control, confidence, and connectedness, makes me feel better. In addition to that is the joy I get from discovering new people, ideas, and possibilities.

Once you experience what better means for you, it’s difficult to return to your old approach. As one person told me, “I could never go back.”