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When Inspiration Meets Reality in Business

There are only two potential outcomes whenever human inspiration meets stagnant reality: either the stagnancy is transformed and new form of reality emerges or the inspiration is crushed and status quo persists. Sadly, the latter has always dominated our daily lives as well as human history. Historically, two approaches have been prescribed and attempted to improve this human condition. One is classical stoicism: we can change our fate through the virtues of hard work and discipline. The other is radical liberalism: overthrow the status quo by political and social means. When applied alone, the former often led humanity into prolonged dark ages while the latter plunged us into violence. In contemporary business, one of the ways by which this traditional battle line manifests itself is as two opposing attitudes towards leadership development and what it entails.

The well respected Stanford Business School professor, Jeffrey Pfeffer, just published a new book titled ‘Leadership BS: Fixing Workplaces and Careers One Truth at a Time’. He questions the value propositions and actual impacts by the decades old but still relatively young leadership development industry. Professor Pfeffer points to the persistently low employee engagement levels in business and concludes that “inspiration is a very poor foundation to build substantive change.”

On the opposite end of the spectrum are those who aspire to the infinite potentials of human nature. Thus the renowned journalist Daniel Pink wrote in his influential book, “Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us””, that “there is a mismatch between what science knows and what business does … the secret to high performance isn’t our biological drive or our reward-and-punishment drive, but our third drive – our deep-seated desire to direct our own lives (autonomy), to extend and expand our abilities (mastery), and to make a contribution (purpose).”

To this author, both sides offer valuable insights into the deep and infinite mystery of human nature. However, in order to make progress in the real world, it is insufficient to merely argue about which end of the rainbow is truer or prettier. The more fundamental question and value added business seems to figure out how to create the rainbow in the first place that will embrace the truths on both ends! In Corporate America, we have both types of experiences every day. Professor Pfeffer was quite courageous and truthful in observing that inspiration is not something often talked about, let alone demonstrated in business, especially by those in positions of power. On the other hand, we all know colleagues and sometimes bosses who are motivated by more than mere material gain and ego gratification.  That’s where professor Pfeffer committed an “original sin”: in a world of emerging realities that we know to be true at a cosmic scale, the most fundamental truth would be missed if we acknowledge only what dominate our senses and feelings at a particular point in time and place.

On the other hand, motivational gurus sometimes do get carried away with overly romanticizing the brighter and neglecting the darker side of human nature. After all, we still share some 96% of our genes with gorillas! Evolution takes place at a time scale of millions and billions of years, not over the breadth of a motivational speech or offsite workshop as some experts would have liked. If we are going to succeed in cultivating more human qualities out of our ape roots, we ought to be prepared to kick some nasty habits off ourselves as well as learning new ones. Such change and creative destruction do not come in neatly wrapped gift boxes but requires a great deal of work. My friend, Gerry Bouey has developed a framework of four S (struggle, suffering, sacrifice and surrendering) to characterize the human experience of such a journey. Fear of struggle and/or suffering and/or sacrifice and/or surrendering often keeps an individual away from experiencing authentic growth and consequently prevents him or her from reaching his or her full potential.

A familiar example is the variations in our experience of work as a job, career or calling. Employee engagement has become a hot topic in Corporate America as businesses continue to search for the magic formula of superior productivity and competitiveness. Cultural change is now on the menu of services offered by many major as well as boutique consultancies to drastically boost business performance. Most if not all such change initiatives fail because they focus only on the structural and sometimes behavioral aspects of change but almost never the mindsets that generate and sustain such structures and behaviors in the first place. As long as employees continue to experience their work merely as a job in exchange for a paycheck, it is natural for them to limit their engagement to what’s absolutely necessary to keep the job. He or she will likely apply any surplus energy to a 2nd or even 3rd job elsewhere. To increase the level of engagement qualitatively, it is necessary to help the employee learn about and take his or her profession more seriously so that they could experience their work as more than a job, a career with clear ladders and rewards along each step of the way. Such employees are more likely to engage in activities with a longer investment horizon such as improving task performance over time in order to demonstrate competency and become eligible for promotions. One bottleneck that career oriented employees eventually run into is when and how to collaborate with each other on shared goals. There are usually only limited opportunities for advancement along the career ladder. Collaboration could easily turn into competition or even back stabbing between careerists as they jostle for positions to outshine each other. To increase the level of engagement further, it is necessary for the careerists to discover and develop a sense of calling in their work. They still want to be promoted. But now promotion becomes subordinated to the joy of the work itself. It is much easier for employees to collaborate with each other when they share a deeper passion or calling in the purpose of their work. Many people make the erroneous assumption that only certain types of “interesting” work could engender a sense of calling in employees. Nothing could be further from the truth. How people experience their work depend primarily on their psychological states of mind and is a developed versus inherited habit. In the most extreme case, the renowned Austrian psychiatrist, Viktor Frankl successfully adapted the habits of mind for himself and his fellow inmates to not only survive but even enjoy their experiences in the Nazi concentration camp! After the war, Dr. Frankl helped thousands of people to recover from their traumas by discovering the meaning and calling of their lives. Our modern fascinations with technologies have made it both harder and easier to discover deeper meaning in our work. It’s harder because the volume of information has exploded in our life time at a speed exponentially higher than the increase of our mental capacity to absorb them. Now more than ever, we need higher (emotional and spiritual) levels of intelligence to help us cope with the information overload and avoid becoming merely informational robots. It has also become easier since our knowledge of human consciousness is never greater and tools more available to help individuals and organizations to develop higher intelligence (e.g., Mindsight). Companies topping the list of 2015 Fortune magazine’s best places to work have all adopted organizational policies and practices that emphasize developing talents who experience their work as a calling versus merely a career or job. People have truly become the most important competitive advantage versus merely PR at companies like Google and Facebook (e.g., How Google Builds Bosses to Order).

What about the rest of us who are not fortunate enough to land a job at Google or Facebook? The good news is that the same principles and tools are available and applicable to us, too. But of course, we will encounter more challenges in less friendly environments just as Viktor Frankl did in Nazi concentration camps. Another friend of mine, Sarah Meyer has developed a method and set of techniques for her clients to discover deeper meaning and joy by overcoming paralyzing dysfunctions in their lives.

It is no exaggeration to say that we are now in possession of sufficient knowledge and tools to help anyone find meaning, calling and true happiness at work regardless his or her profession and circumstances. The only question is if we are willing to struggle, suffer, sacrifice and surrender ourselves to the art and science of cultivating higher intelligence in ourselves and the organizations that we lead and/or influence.

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