Can we move beyond old definitions of success and transform work culture?

Organisational culture must cast off old work myths and norms that no longer make sense in the 21st century, says Amina Aitsi-Selmi

We spend the majority of our adult life in work (an estimated 80,000 hours). But we don’t spend enough time thinking about what we really want from our work lives, let alone taking action on what we might discover.

Workplace culture doesn’t seem to help. In fact, about a billion people are unfulfilled at work. According to Gallup’s 2017 Global State of the Workplace survey, 85% of employees are either ‘not engaged’ or ‘actively disengaged’ at work. The report found that, ‘[t]he new workforce is looking for things like purpose, opportunities to develop, ongoing conversations, a coach rather than a boss, and a manager who leverages their strengths rather than obsessing over their weaknesses. They see work and life as interconnected, and they want their job to be a part of their identity.’

Work myths in need of reform

Humans are blessed and cursed with the faculty of story-making. Our whole existence is coloured by the narratives we have learned over time (from our upbringing and education). We’re also able to create a shared narrative and make ‘culture’ that informs our norms at work and in our personal lives.

But what happens if these narratives are toxic or out of date? For instance, what happens if workers ask for more reasonable working hours? Or if an ethnic minority starts to demand fairer treatment? Usually, the first wave of change crashes against the immovable bulwark of the status quo. Over time, things can change, with persistence and determination.

But what do you do if you’re part of the first wave of change? Do you keep your head down and let others lead the wave? Or do you rise to the occasion and put your security at risk for the greater good and hope of a better future?

Of course, the decision isn’t always black or white. But one thing we do know from a psychological point of view, is that change requires clear awareness of the problem and allowing for the possibility of a solution.

Today, two arguably problematic work myths dominate our workplace cultures and are candidates for reform:

  1. Constant work is a good thing (the ‘Protestant work ethic’)
  2. Profit (shareholder value) comes first

Let’s look at these in turn to understand why work can feel so miserable.

1. Constant work is a good thing (the Protestant work ethic): one of the most enduring narratives underlining capitalism is that hard work and constant busy-ness are to be praised (the so-called Protestant work ethic). Originally, hard work indicated spiritual salvation. Today, it’s simply a norm associated with the idea of success.

Now, it’s one thing to work hard because it bolsters your sense of self-worth, life purpose and a promise of heavenly rewards after death. It’s quite another to work hard for someone else’s financial gain with questionable social value and little personal gain/benefit.

2. Profit (shareholder value) comes first: since the 1980s, the idea of shareholder value maximisation has dominated the way companies function. It prioritises shareholder payouts and therefore company profit (rather than, say, social value or staff well­being).

This single idea has exacerbated the feeling of meaningless work that most employees experience. Combined with relentless and meaningless consumerism and you have a ticking time bomb for the career and existential crises that have become the norm. ‘What was all that hard work for? What was I trying to prove? What impact has it made? Is there something more?…’

Career and existential crises: the wake-up call

According to large economic surveys, most people in the west will experience a crisis of meaning in work and life in their mid-30s. Research from more than 500,000 Americans and western Europeans showed a parallel pattern in terms of happiness and wellbeing: a decline when in their 30s, hitting rock bottom in their mid-50s, then rising again.

Interestingly, this pattern affects people across the board: white-collar workers, blue-collar workers, married people and single people alike. By your mid-30s, you realise that you have a version of ‘success’ that you don’t really like. It might just be that your priorities have changed or that it was never what you really wanted. Either way, you find yourself working really hard for a life you don’t like. You may have landed all the trappings of success (a ‘great job’ with high status and a good salary and lifestyle, for example) but something is still missing and there’s no end to the daily grind.

If handled with care and skill through therapy or coaching, these crises and the questions that emerge from them can lead to a course-correction and a flourishing in the second part of life. After all, careers for life are over and this is just as well at this time of rapid societal change.

True success is a collective project

The markers of conventional ‘success’ are well known: money, power, status. But what are the markers of ‘failure’? Are there new markers of success like mental wellbeing, healthy relationships and a capacity for full engagement with life?

Long-term studies point to three factors that damage health at work: lack of control; an effort-reward imbalance; and dysfunctional hierarchies. All of these point to the need for collective efforts towards change in the social fabric of our workplaces.

Mounting evidence shows that without reform, organisations simply cannot tap into the wellspring of human creativity and innovation to face the complex challenges of the 21st century. Without a shift in orientation in how success is framed from a ‘me’ project to a ‘me-we’ project (the classic ‘win-win approach’ of game theory) climate change, inequality, technological disruption and global supply chain vulnerability will continue to grow as challenges to societal stability and human wellbeing. Leaders must set the tone from the top.

So, the answer isn’t that change is possible, but perhaps that it is inevitable and imperative – it has to be intentional and part of our global, local and personal agendas.

Start where you are, even if it’s your living room

We’ve made great progress in ensuring physical safety of working conditions compared to Victorian times. It’s time to create a sense of psychological safety, where we can start exploring new ways of working and producing without fear of rejection from the mainstream. Experimentation must become the mainstream to avoid being stuck in a ‘Success Trap’ of old work myths and organisational norms that no longer work in the 21st century.

This is the exciting and challenging work of personal and collective transformation. Once we hear the global alarm bell of necessary change, we can make a choice to be the change we want to see.

The best leaders, thinkers and innovators have personal reflection practices. They give themselves space to question their narratives and make space for breakthroughs. Bill Gates does his best thinking when he’s walking or on sabbatical, for example.

The stark reality is that we’re all called to lead in a world that is subject to constant disruption. Technological breakthroughs are no longer confined to conventional institutions and centres of expertise but emerge from young people’s garages. Social movements can be created instantly on social media – a platform of communication by which anyone can achieve global reach.

Using reflection time to consider what your true gifts are and where they would serve best should not be a luxury but a human right and civic duty in the 21st century. Japanese culture has captured this in a simple but elegant concept called Ikigai or ‘reason for being’. It’s the sweet spot of fulfilment of our lives at the intersection of these four questions:

  1. What do you love doing?
  2. What is your zone of genius?
  3. What does the world need?
  4. What will the world recognise and pay you for?

One of the challenges is that most people are not even aware of the narratives they carry inside their heads. They believe that ‘this is just how it is’ and give into ‘lack of time’.

Enabling ourselves and others to engage with these questions and act on the insights revealed is no small thing. Considering the high and widespread levels of unhappiness at work, it could be a step towards solving one of the biggest crises of our time.

Amina Aitsi-Selmi is a Transformational Coach and Consultant, qualified in medicine at the University of Cambridge and holds a PhD in Social Epidemiology from University College London. She is the author of The Success Trap (Kogan Page, 2020).

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