Acknowledged, Ignored, or Shredded

The experiments described in The Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization research paper are both quite simple. Yet they capture fundamental truths about how we relate to the work we do.

Imagine you’re one of the MIT students who volunteered for the experiments described below. What would you do?

Experiment #1

In the first experiment, you’re handed a sheet of paper filled with typed letters and paid 55 cents for finding ten instances of two consecutive ones. You’ll be paid 50 cents for analyzing a second page, 45 cents for a third page, and so on. Participants perform the task under one of three conditions. (Subjects didn’t know about the other conditions or their labels.) 

In the Acknowledged condition, the subjects were asked to write their name on each sheet prior to starting the task. The instructions explained that after completing the task, they would hand the sheet over to the experimenter who would examine it and file it away in a folder. 

In the Ignored condition, the subjects were not instructed to write their name on the sheets, and in fact none did so. Moreover, the instructions explained that, after the subject completed the task, the experimenter would place the sheet on a high stack of papers. The experimenter in fact did so without examining the completed sheets. 

The Shredded condition was the same as the Ignored condition except that the instructions explained that the completed sheets would be immediately put through a paper shredder. As the subjects turned in the sheets, the experimenter shredded them without a glance.

Under which condition would you perform more work?

Experiment #2 

In the second experiment, you are asked to build a kind of Lego figure called a Bionicle. You’re paid $2 for the first one you build, eleven cents less for the next one, and so on down to 2 cents for the twentieth Bionicle and beyond. In this experiment, there are two conditions.

In the Meaningful condition, after the subject would build each Bionicle, he would place it on the desk in front of him, and the experimenter would give him a new box with new Bionicle pieces. Hence, as the session progressed, the completed Bionicles would accumulate on the desk. 

In the Sisyphus condition, there were only two boxes. After the subject completed the first Bionicle and began working on the second, the experimenter would disassemble the first Bionicle into pieces and place the pieces back into the box. Hence, the Bionicles could not accumulate; after the second Bionicle, the subject was always rebuilding previously assembled pieces that had been taken apart by the experimenter.

Under which condition would you perform more work?

Results

You can readily guess that the MIT students did more work if they were in the Acknowledged or Meaningful conditions. What most people can’t guess is just how much more work. “Almost half of the subjects in the Acknowledged condition were willing to work until the wage dropped all the way to zero,” far out-pacing the other students. Subjects in the Meaningful condition built 40% more Bionicles, and also built them faster. The small signals of recognition and purpose made a significant difference. 

One of the researchers, Dan Ariely, describes the results in a popular TED talk titled “What makes us feel good about our work?” Recognition and purpose needn’t be lofty ideals, he said. They can be as simple as someone acknowledging your work and making it possible for you to see that you contribute, even tangentially, to some objective. 

Perhaps, like me, you’ve had bosses who have done the equivalent of ignoring or shredding your work. What do you do when that happens? Do you hope they’ll change, or pray for a new boss? How do you feel?

Whenever I found myself working in the “pointless” condition, I would be miserable. Then I learned how to make my work visible so others could see it and use it. That made it possible for me to gain a feeling of recognition and purpose from anywhere, from anyone. It made my work better and made me happier.

“Identity, pride, and meaning are all left out from standard models of labor supply,” the researchers said, “but ignoring the dimension of meaning may be quite expensive, for employer and for society.”

What conditions are you working in? What will you do about it?

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Exhaling on the scale

The first time I noticed it, I smiled and thought, What a strange thing to do. Then I noticed it again the next day, and realized it was an unconscious habit. Every morning, before stepping on the scale, I breath out deeply, as if that will make a difference in the results. 

It doesn’t make any sense. Yet I think I figured out why I do it: it gives me the perception of control without having to do the more challenging work required to affect the outcome. It’s as if I’m telling myself, “Well, I haven’t exercised for the last few days, and I ate and drank too much last night…but I can do this!” Then I slowly blow out a gust of air. Whoooooooosh.

It would be funny except that I do something similar when it comes to work. 

Like many people, I have a fuzzy notion of the important things I’d like to accomplish. Yet there’s usually enough uncertainty or doubt surrounding those things, or they may seem too big, that they trigger anxiety and resistance. To deal with that, I would find myself filling my day with small tasks and activities, chipping away at an infinite todo list. I would feel busy, but all I really accomplished was avoiding the difficult work required to do something meaningful. 

So lately I’m trying something new. Every Monday I have a short call with a friend, and we each share the top three things we need to do during the upcoming week to make progress towards our big goals. We don’t talk about everything we might do or could do. We just list three specific things we will do, work that will move us in the right direction.

On the next call, we’ll talk about what happened in the past week, discuss adjustments we might make, and share our goals for the following week. There’s no judgment or competition. Just learning and encouragement to focus and to keep going. The mutual accountability helps us maintain both motivation and momentum.

A nice phrase to describe what we’re sharing is our “essential intent,” a phrase from Greg McKeown’s Essentialism. The phrase is usually applied to longer timeframes, but I’ve found it useful as a way to describe nearer-term goals, too. What is the essential thing you intend to do this week/month/year/life? Think of it as a way to distill the truly important from the sea of possible activities, and to state it in a way that’s both actionable and measurable.

Reflect for a moment on your own big goals for your work and life. Do you know your essential intent for this month or this week? For tomorrow? Are you doing work what matters, or are you exhaling on the scale? 


What could WOL for Healthcare look like?

Her note started off nicely enough. Then I read her feedback, including a challenge I didn’t know what to do with.

Bettina had heard about WOL Circles at a conference and liked the idea. “I started my first Circle directly. With great success!” She said she is working as a Change Manager in a large non-profit healthcare organization in Germany, and that she wanted to spread Circles. But she made it clear that WOL, in its current form, would never work. 

“The nurses, doctors, and other professionals do not have 60 minutes a week for WOL, there is too much text, the examples have to refer to the health sector…” 

Ouch. She even said the German translation wasn’t acceptable, as the informal pronoun (“du”) simply isn’t used in her organization’s “official papers.”

I knew she was right. I asked if we could speak on the phone. 

The challenges in Healthcare

Healthcare organizations suffer from the same cultural issues that plague many large companies. The hierarchical structures limit information flows in ways that are bad for individuals, the organization, and the patient. Too often, nurses don’t question doctors and medical technicians don’t question the ambulance manager. (Atul Gawande, surgeon, author, and CEO of the recently-formed healthcare venture formed by Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway, and JP Morgan Chase, captured these challenges in dramatic fashion in The Checklist Manifesto.) 

The same is true across the hierarchy as well. People in a given role are not in the habit of of sharing problems and solutions to improve quality, and in many cases there may be no mechanism to do so. So the same mistakes get repeated, and innovations don’t spread. 

On top of such challenges, all of this takes place in an environment that is extraordinarily demanding. It’s busy, stressful, and unpredictable - and the stakes are extremely high.

One possibility

Of course, not all healthcare organizations have the same cultural issues. Buurtzorg, for example, has over 10,000 professionals in “a nurse-led model of holistic care” that emphasizes “humanity over bureaucracy.” They are portrayed in Reinventing Organizations as a model of self-organization and self-management. But for every Buurtzorg, there are thousands of traditional companies. 

How could WOL help?

I told Bettina how we had already adapted WOL for leaders by making it shorter and simpler, and by integrating it into a reverse mentoring program. Perhaps we could do something similar. 

Together, we decided that Bettina’s colleagues could also meet in pairs (perhaps one with more experience and one new to the organization), and we could limit meeting to no more than 30 minutes. Then we identified eight different exercises over eight weeks - eight contributions they could make that would help them find their voice, improve their craft of patient care, and enable them to re-connect with the sense of purpose that inspired them to join the profession in the first place.

What would you do?

The challenges faced by people in healthcare environment are similar to those in other operational environments, be it manufacturing, retail, transportation.

As different as those jobs may be, the people doing them all share the same human needs for control, competence, and connection. And all of the organizations they work in need to improve quality for their customers and for their own sustainability. The future of work isn’t limited to people working in offices.

Bettina and I will meet in Frankfurt this week to work on details of a pilot. Whatever the outcome, we’ll surely learn something that can help us take a next step and try again.

If you were Bettina, what would you do? What could WOL for Healthcare look like?

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What would make next year great?

Looking back, my career was a series of accidents, not intentions. All the major shifts were reactions to something someone else did, or opportunities that just popped up. I wasn’t purposeful or self-directed. Things just…happened. You could say that rather than me living my life, life lived me.

I’ve been working on changing that. Part of my approach involves keeping a journal in which, every day, I write down my answer to this simple question: 

What would make today great?

Those few minutes of thinking and writing in the morning help me focus my attention on what matters at different points throughout the day, and that helps me to make better, more mindful, choices. The days when I do what I intend to do are all extremely satisfying. 

A friend and I both use the same journal, and when we met for dinner in Stuttgart this month, I thought I would ask him a different question:

What would make next year great?

It led to an intimate discussion about what we each feel is important - relationships we want to deepen, experiences we want to have, meaningful work we want to do. Then we talked about steps we might take to make those things happen. It felt strange for me to chart such a course, but also exhilarating. It felt like I was trying, perhaps for the first time, to be “the author of my own life.” 

What about you? Are you living intentionally, or accidentally? 

What would make next year great?

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Note: Thank you for reading these posts, and for all the wonderful messages in email and on social media. This is my last blog post in 2018. I wish you all much joy and wonder, next year and beyond.

Who will you be when your company takes away your ID?

When someone asks what you do, what do you say?

My first full-time job was at Bell Laboratories, famous for inventing the transistor and discovering evidence of the Big Bang, among other things. I worked on more mundane projects that didn’t amount to much. So when people asked me what I did, I instead proudly responded with where I worked.

As my career progressed, titles became important. “Vice President,” “Director,” “Managing Director.” They all seem meaningless now. But at the time my sense of self-worth depended on them. With each step up the ladder, I would rush to order new business cards, eager to hand them out and show off the newly-upgraded me. 

Other people treated me differently too based on what it said on my badge. They didn’t know me or my work. It was the brand and my position in the hierarchy that determined whether I was relevant or interesting.

I learned the hard way that basing your identity on where you work is inherently risky and unstable. When my last company’s successes turned into scandals and fines, my pride turned to shame. When I was laid off, there was no longer a company or title to define who I was. It was just me.

It took me a long time to realize that I had a choice, that I could step out from behind a business card, make my work visible, and shape my own reputation. It took me a long time to accept that being “just me” was enough. I wish I had started sooner.

What about you? When they take away your ID, who will you be?

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Bernadette’s purposeful discovery

Sometimes you know the direction you’re heading in isn’t quite right for you. But, unsure of where else to turn, you keep going anyway, saddled with growing discontent and dissatisfaction.

Bernadette Schreyer tried a different approach. Her initial idea was just to find a new job. After a series of small steps, however, she gradually became more confident. She started considering alternatives that made the most of her talents and aspirations. Soon she let herself dream, and she decided to change course in dramatic fashion.

“This just feels so good,” she wrote, “It feels like ‘me’.”

I found her story remarkable and inspiring, and included it in full below. While our paths may differ from Bernadette’s, we can all take steps towards finding more meaning and fulfillment in our lives. 

"Headed to Italy soon where the boat is waiting for the first passage to Corsica. I attached a picture of our first photo shoot on board :-)" You can follow Bernadette and her journey on sailingfoxes.com & bernifoxmusic.com and even watch Bernadette on YouTube

 

About Dreaming Out Loud and a letter from my future self: sometimes you have to take a bigger step towards your goal. 

Have you ever thought about how it will feel to realize your big dream?

I work at a big firm and joined a WOL circle some months ago. WOL is very popular where I work and all our KickOff workshops are fully booked after two hours with more then 500 people on the waitlist. People start to get together from various departments and learn how to coach themselves and to do something good - for themselves and others. I am more than thankful about this movement to lead people to a better life and career - we definitely need this mindset!

I joined a circle with the goal to find a new job within the firm. I am an acoustics engineer, composer and musician and landed a job in sound development for exhaust pipes but I realized quite quickly that I am not on the right track. By joining a circle one year after joining the company I started working on my network and looking for new opportunities. My network is strong, but there was no new job, and a lot of wishes and dreams inside my heart. And then there was week 7. The best week ever. I wrote a letter to myself. It was incredibly easy. I was listening to my heart and the text was just growing by itself. Well, I already had that particular dream years ago but I never took the first step because I thought the time wasn't right. But in my situation, ideas started to form and grow: the plan to realize what's inside of me. To break out and do something absolutely DIFFERENT.

Some weeks ago I finished my circle and said goodbye to my colleagues at work. I finally took the big step I was first afraid of and I am looking forward to changing my life upside down. Together with my partner, I will set sails soon. As an adventurer and musician, I want to go on a big journey on our 41ft sailboat with a piano on board composing music. My message for the world out there is: "Listen to your heart and live your dreams, even if it's hard!

I want to share my story to show people that it's possible to live dreams and to help them achieve what they are longing for. I am currently working on my first videos to share on Facebook and YouTube and I wrote my first blog posts. I am not used to be active online and it felt a bit weird at first to write in public but the principles of WOL helped me to feel more confident and to share my story in the process. It's normal that it takes some time to get used to new things in life, but it is amazing to explore and learn about the world, and especially about yourself.

If you have a question or are worried about taking a big step, feel free to contact me on bernifox@sailingfoxes.com or visit https://sailingfoxes.com. I am happy to help! 

***

The first draft of the rest of your life

The subject of the email was “Need your help.” Since it was sent by a strong, confident friend who had never asked for help before, I was worried. It turned out it wasn’t a crisis, but she was stuck on something. “I’m in big trouble…do you have time?” So we scheduled a call.

The problem? She had committed to submitting a paper for publication, and she couldn’t get started. Though she has a lot to say on the subject, she had struggled for weeks to make any progress and now the deadline was looming. Her anxiety was evident.

I thought of the many bits of advice I had benefitted from and might share, and then I discarded all of it.

“Open up your laptop,” I said. “Let’s start right now.”

At first we just talked about the topic, and after a few minutes a theme emerged. We exchanged ideas for a phrase or sentence that might capture it until we came up with a headline that felt good to her. “Great,” I said. “Write that down.”

We moved on to headings. What were the main points she was trying to make? She talked about a wide range of ideas, including some resources she found helpful. It was scattered at first. She was still overwhelmed. I listened, and reflected back whatever major points I heard. When one made sense to her, she wrote it down. Then we came up with another. “That reminds me!” she said, erupting with ideas now. She began recalling related things she had written and read and thought about before.

Soon there was less talking and more typing. Her energy had shifted from nervous to excited, and she was still writing as we hung up. A few weeks after our call, she sent me a note that she had finished it. It wasn’t perfect, she told me, and she would do it differently next time, but she was glad for the chance to learn and get better.

Since our call, I’ve been thinking of how my friend’s experience is a metaphor for how many of us live our lives. We struggle to think through what we want our life to be like. We may have ideas but it can be hard to put them into a coherent picture. And we may feel time is running out.

Waiting doesn't help. The only way out is through. Maybe you start with writing a letter from your future self, or describe your perfect month, or do whatever exercise would help you capture the first draft of an intentional life. It may not be exactly right, but that step attunes your attention and opens you up to next steps and new possibilities.

As the poet Mary Oliver asked

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

Voice your intention. Pick up your journal or laptop and begin writing. Clip pictures from magazines and craft a vision board. Call a friend if you need to. Let’s start right now.

***

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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.

Your perfect month

The inspiration to do this exercise came from Moyra Mackie, the first person I ever called “coach.” At the time, I was working at Deutsche Bank, struggling to write drafts of Working Out Loud, and feeling like I was paddling in a leaky canoe - lots of activity but not much progress or direction. 

On one of our phone calls, Moyra suggested that I write down what my “perfect month” might look like in a year or two. That timeframe was far enough away to give me the latitude to do different things, yet close enough that I needed to be practical. My perfect month wasn’t just about sitting on a beach in Okinawa, but about a way to earn a living while living a balanced life.

So I took a piece of paper, wrote down the days of the month, and started to imagine what I would do each day. 

The things I began listing I had considered before. Yet something about mapping those ideas to specific days in the month made them seem more real - and made me ask myself more questions. Yes, I would like to travel, write, do research, etc. But how much? One day a month? Five? Ten? I found myself visualizing my days and weeks. I imagined how it would feel - how I would feel.

I could see this was a good visioning exercise, and I enjoyed doing it. (It’s a nice companion to the “Letter from Your Future Self” in Week 7 of a WOL Circle.) Then I put the piece of paper away, and forgot about it. 

That was a few years ago. I happened to find that piece of paper recently and was struck by how much of it describes my last month, and the month before that. Though my “perfect month” wasn’t meant as an exact prescription or prediction, it captured a direction I wanted to take. It enabled me to see an example of what a more balanced, creative, fulfilling portfolio might look like.

That exercise helped me appreciate how articulating your intention can be extremely powerful. It can help you identify what experiments you might do to see if the direction is a good one for you, and who you might build relationships with to discover more. It can help you make that all-important shift from feeling stuck to taking a step.

When you reflect on your own career and life, where are you heading? What’s your perfect month?

A year on my own

A year ago, after having worked in big companies my entire life, I decided to start a company of my own. I figured I would mark my anniversary by answering the question people ask me most:

“How’s it going?”

The trade-offs quickly became obvious

It didn’t take long for me to experience the advantages. Immediately, I was in control of my time and my work, and that was both empowering and fulfilling. Like shedding a heavy overcoat that had grown increasingly uncomfortable, I left behind the mundane anxieties, the manufactured drama, and the sheer senselessness of some of what I did each day. I felt lighter. I felt liberated.

The disadvantage was equally clear: the paycheck that was deposited twice a month was no longer going to arrive.

Building my way forward

Though I had published Working Out Loud a year earlier, and had interacted with people and companies in different countries, I had no firm idea how I would make a living. I figured I could deliver presentations and workshops, and do some consulting. But I knew many people who were doing the same and were struggling. Why would I be different?

So I tried experiment after experiment. Most didn’t amount to much, but each one helped me practice my craft or get feedback on a new idea. They refined my sense of the work I wanted to do as well as what other people valued. After six months or so, I had a few more customers and an emerging sense of what I could offer them.

And so it continues. I’m writing this on a train in Germany where I’ll work with five different companies in four cities. More experiments. More learning. My fledgling business isn’t a success, it's a work in progress. Step by step.

I can’t say I’d recommend what I’m doing to someone else. The odds are too high. Most days it feels like there’s no ground beneath your feet. As a result, I have more compassion for my former self, working at big corporations for so long. I also have more respect than ever for anyone who tries to build something on their own, whatever it is.

Finding my ikigai

A year ago, I named my new company “Ikigai” after the Japanese word for “a reason for living.” I feel like I’ve found my ikigai now. It’s to change how people relate to each other, to themselves, and to the work they do. When I get it right, the methods I’m developing help individuals be more effective and feel happier. They make work more human, compassionate, and connected. Maybe someday they’ll change the culture of a company, or even a country. Step by step.

I think the photo of me and my daughter on a rollercoaster captures how I feel after my first year on my own. I’m happy and excited and scared all at the same time. There’s so much to do and so much I don’t know. But the feeling of purpose makes it worth it. Just like that rollercoaster, I can’t wait to get back on for another ride.