Bring Meaning to Work and Purpose to Spirituality

Play and Work: Can They Be Reconciled?

I just came back from a conference this week at a resort hotel. It has one of these sprawling pools and water slides all around the property that my son is very excited about. Interestingly, he spends most of his time and clearly has the most fun at the kiddy pool area vs. the huge water slides nearby. He’s 7 years old but loves fooling around in the ankle-deep waters of the kiddy pool. From time to time, he will join my wife and me for a float (3-feet deep) or even take a slide down the tube with me in a double seater. But without a doubt, the kiddy pool is his kingdom and where he feels like a master, constantly switching from the water cannon to the alligator to the baby slides …

I’ve observed very similar patterns of behaviors in business. People need a sense of control and mastery in order to be able to enjoy themselves and feel fulfilled. They will go out of their ways to create the conditions to achieve this end objective. If they are frustrated for whatever reason, their motivation for work goes down and become either apathetic (it’s just a job) or switch departments or employers in hope of finding greener pastures … I know personally any number of high caliber professionals who spend their entire careers repeating such job cycles without ever tasting the forbidden fruits of finding joy and fulfillment at work.

There are any number of organizational consultants and executive coaches claiming in possession of secret recipes to reconcile work and play but few deliver the goods. What makes it hard is the fact that there is a pair, not just one or two independent forces that are acting against it and mutually dragging each other down: the ignorance and immaturity on the parts of individual executives, professionals and workers on one hand; and the organizational systems and management culture developed to cope with such ignorance and immaturity in order to get the necessary work done. In a typical organization, you will often find HR folks managing this dynamics from one end (controlling) and OD people from another (developing) with a grand canyon in the middle where 99% of people suffer free fall …

What are missing are exactly those kiddy pools, teenager adventure parks and adult innovation centers that can bridge play with work. More and more, I have come to believe that individuals must take such matters into their own hands instead of relying on their employers taking care of them. Of course, that is not to say that “enlightened” management could not leverage such strategic opportunities. More often than not, the employers are consumed by the demands of routine maintenance, e.g., regulatory compliance and prevention of frivolous law-suits.

For example, let’s look at relationship management between businesses in an industry or functions within a single business. When two independent entities decide to “do business” with each other, there must be win-win proposition(s) for both parties. Typically, one party (provider) will provide one or more services to another (customer). The business relationship between the two parties can be characterized either at the service (concrete and measurable) or need (less concrete and measurable and could lead to future services) or relationship (even less concrete or measurable and could lead to identification of future needs) level. As the business relationship deepens, the amount of ambiguity in mutual interactions also increases. It is the presence of such ambiguities and a shared desire to exploit their potentials for mutual gains that makes or breaks a business partnership. Relatively speaking, there is more “play” with innovative ideas at early stages of problem definition and needs identification and more “work” in later stages of execution or implementation of chosen ideas.

Two common misunderstandings and mismanagement of this creative process are to either deny the natural differences in life conditions and/or skill competencies faced or possessed by different individuals in diverse situations; or over simplify the diversities and depths of the human condition and attempts to “cage” them in special departments, job titles or levels of hierarchy. The former often comes under the disguise of employee equality or empowerment; the latter manifest in numerous forms of authoritarian structures in Corporate America or Communist’s regimes alike. Individuals, organizations and history seem to zig-zag between these two forms of dysfunction most of the time.

To find joy in our work or turn our work into play, we need to follow a different path guided by a different map from what’s popular. Harvard psychologist and educator, Robert Kegan, provides such a map in terms of a three-stage adult learning process:

  1. Socialized mind;
  2. Self-authoring mind;
  3. Self-transforming mind.

Most people are considered as adults and accepted into society and work force when they have developed enough understanding and disciplines to follow already established protocols at work and in society. However, societies and organizations can not stand still and must continue to evolve. The ideas and changes can only originate with individuals. Therefore, the self-authoring mind represents a more advanced state of social reality than that of the socialized mind. Finally, the self-authoring minds soon or later run into conflicts with each other; some even become aware of the flaws as well as advantages of the new ideas that he or she or someone else tries to introduce and the only way to make them work is through trials and errors in some collaborative manner. When the intentions shift from ego gratification to bringing about effective collective change, the minds have become self-transformative. Because self-transformative is both more productive in surfacing new ideas and implementing them than the self-authoring mind, it is said to have greater complexity in an evolutionary context. Evolution as a whole maybe understood as an ever unfolding process of increasing complexity with each successive level solving the problems created by the previous level.

There are very practical and powerful applications of this understanding of human nature. Despite centuries of scientific progress, today’s business and social enterprises are still saturated with socialized minds, especially at the bottom of the hierarchy. Such mindset tends to follow established rules or take orders from others with little independent judgment and thinking. The laws of our society and standard operating procedures of all modern corporations serve to re-enforce such social standards with great benefits and some unintended consequences. For example, once fashionable financial engineering practices involving prime mortgages led to the most severe economic recession since the Great Depression. At the peak of the market, no financial institution could afford NOT engaging in it, despite well known and publicized risks. At a more personal level, the average American consumer becomes addicted to credit card debt almost from birth since everyone is doing it … At work, rigid bureaucrats or submissive order takers are ill equipped with solving more complex problems arising in the new global economy. For those who are charged with growing businesses in such environments, it is critical that they select and grow the talents who are self-authoring and capable of adapting themselves to changing needs. Another critical challenge of our time is team creativity. For example, the new drug discovery and development at pharmaceutical and biotech companies has become an extremely complex undertaking, far exceeding the capacity and skills of any one or small group of individuals. The successful discovery, development and marketing of a new drug often involve hundreds or thousands of highly specialized experts in many domains. The traditional image of a few eccentric scientists making great discoveries in secluded laboratories is fast fading into history. How to develop and maintain collaborative team dynamics among highly specialized, opinionated and successful domain experts has become THE business challenge for almost all R&D driven businesses such as pharmaceutics. In this case, the ego-drives of the self-authoring minds of the domain experts must be re-directed towards the self-transforming goal of team collaboration and creativity. Self-transforming mind is no longer just a moral ideal but a competitive advantage in the knowledge economy.

For those of you who are still searching for a playground at work, it’s a great exercise to lay Kegan’s map on top of your workplace in order to understand the social dynamics and position yourself where actions are and you feel most comfortable, the two essential conditions for finding playfulness at work.

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