Beyond the Work Ethic

By Donald Officer

Ninety percent of adults spend half their waking lives doing things they would rather not be doing at places they would rather not be.
Barry Schwarz, Why We Work (2015)

What a terrible statistic! If you don’t believe Schwarz, who recently retired after a long and distinguished career as a professor and social science researcher, check in with Gallup and other reputable survey organizations, and you’ll get the sense it’s pretty accurate. For anyone trying to acknowledge or express gratitude to a workplace colleague, such numbers suggest a lot of static disrupting the signal.

The blunt truth is that many people are not automatically engaged in their work; apparently, most of them. In this space, The Center for Grateful Leadership, we are used to hearing or reading inspirational stories, authentic recounting of people who give of themselves to their colleagues, direct reports, managers, customers, the custodial staff – you name it. So many opportunities to acknowledge the deserving. However, what do you say to the person who doesn’t believe they deserve to be acknowledged?

To put it another way, what actually drives the disengaged 90%? Are they all class clowns looking for attention by not cooperating? Are they genuine free riders looking to get through the workday without making an effort? Are they wannabee activists angry about the distribution of wages and profits? Are they simply the profoundly discouraged who have lost faith in the system, the organization, management or humanity at large? Or are they simply confused and disoriented, in over their heads because they lack essential competencies or social skills to thrive in the workplace? The probability, you’ve maybe already concluded, is that the disengaged worker could be any of the above or a messy mixture of several. 

Is this kind of person someone you want to acknowledge or show gratitude in any form towards?

Well, yes. As long, that is, that you are making it clear you are acknowledging the person not the effort or commitment. The same rules apply to the over achiever, by the way. People are not widgets or commodities. The top producer becomes a candidate for burnout if he or she believes personal value is only output dependent then proceeds to exhaustion or a hollowing out of self, striving to meet unrealistic, increasingly meaningless targets.

Unfortunately, even the best leader can not lock down perception. The rat’s nest of disengagement is visible only through consequences. No matter how appreciative or compassionate the management or culture strives to be, at some point the work needs to be done. This is not always properly understood by higher level knowledge workers or symbolic analysts as Peter Drucker called them. In today’s abstract, data driven organizations the remoteness of objectives generates a different kind of disengagement, a distancing from affected workers or disadvantaged populations for instance. This may lead to a cold “let them eat cake” mindset.

Let me describe the paradox. A whole industry of soft skills gurus is marketing values and processes which only the knowledge worker has access to. Those required to meet hard quotas and deadlines rarely enjoy the luxury of mindful reflection and interpersonal skills development workshops. Or so it seems to the workers themselves as well as to their bosses.

Yet we all know of examples where soft skills are valued and disengagement is minimal. Last month we heard from Richard Sheridan, author of Chief Joy Officer and CEO of Menlo Innovations, a company where engagement is the main driver of operations and guarantor or affordable high quality. But what can you as a leader do when you are not the CEO or founder and the culture is too entrenched to accept the disruption of any kind of change?

You do what has always saved communities, even whole societies when thriving, perhaps surviving is on the line. You look for the opportunity gap. Even when the situation is bleakest and markets are meanest, it’s always there. Acknowledgment, gratitude, appreciation, encouragement: these closely related mutually reinforcing values form the resource of our common humanity. Moreover, despite the frustrated beliefs of the grand designers and thwarted expectations of the highly credentialed, salvation does not always trickle down from the top.

Psychologists like Barry Schwarz, Amy Wrzesniewski and Bryan Dik have researched and written perceptively about ways to make unattractive, but necessary work more acceptable to the “dis” or “under” engaged. The studies of these and other researchers including management and organizational theorists, point to reframing of workplace activity mostly from the perspective of the individual worker.

Schwarz suggests looking at the big picture by considering the larger purpose. A hospital janitor saves lives by removing sources of dangerous infection. Wrzesniewski and Dik discuss crafting the job to go beyond the minimal functional requirement. Wrzesniewski might suggest we look at the same hospital janitor as a bringer of cheer and friendly interaction to stressed, lonely patients in need of the personal acknowledgment medical staff have limited time to give.

Bryan Dik, author of Make Your Job a Calling sees these two aspects of reframing as essential aspects of bringing meaning to work and as a personal growth pathway that leads from job through career to calling in the life of the fulfilled worker. How, in practice, can we bring personal meaning together with a broader purpose to the community while meeting prescribed demands?  Every job, service or profession always includes difficult elements as well as experiences and results in outcomes that may or may not make it worthwhile.

As a grateful leader you are already on the way to making your job a calling. As someone who acknowledges others beyond the requirements of prescribed duties, you are crafting your job. These qualities, now a key part of social and meaning psychology and becoming a regular component of consulting and coaching toolkits, are implicit in Judy Umlas’ path finding titles, The Power of Acknowledgment and Grateful Leadership. Nevertheless, there is anothergift you can offer your co-workers if they are willing to accept it, one that might seem at first to come from a surprising source. We now turn to a long established and well tested practice with extraordinarily apt application throughout many facets of everyone’s waking life.

In 2016, Dan Charnas published Work Clean, a book I consider a generous gift to people struggling with the tasks, demands and ultimate purposes of what they do in performing their work. Work can be a perfunctory series of tasks, an exacting profession or consist of volunteering and avocation. You may choose to look at what you do every day in many ways, but regardless, as Bob Dylan wrote, “You’ve got to serve somebody.”

Even those who say they hate their work are shocked when it’s taken away. Mental health is in jeopardy with job loss because the job is part of identity. Promotion, enrichment and coping are ways out of bad work, but we can also transform our practice. If we do this successfully we might even go a step beyond calling to mission. In writing his book, Charnas examined a working tradition practiced broadly throughout the world. He writes respectfully about the food service profession, of the finest restaurants and greatest chefs. Specifically, he describes in fulsome detail the core practice of “mise-en-place”, the meticulous organization of materials, tools, workspace and time followed by disciplined cooks in the great restaurants which have grown from the grand tradition of French cuisine. The reason for this book goes beyond good cooking and prompt service. By following the principles experienced chefs teach and enforce, we can translate the economy, flexibility, adaptability, care and pursuit of excellence which is their way of life into practices we can implement in our lives, whatever our chosen field of work.

The keys are easily understood but require steady self-discipline to execute. Planning is coupled with preparation and scheduling, so it is strategic and adaptable, not mechanical. Economy of movement is critical because you must synchronize all elements to avoid losing control of your meal. You keep your workplace clean and organized not simply for hygienic reasons, but to maintain fully operational; your workspace is command central. Effective cooks, surprisingly, prefer to work in smaller kitchens where everything is to hand. That goes for putting tools and supplies away too. Clean as you go. To return to planning for a moment, in the chef’s world it is a constant. Supplies, procedures, checklists, alternatives to last minute failures. Word gets around in the restaurant trade. The business and your job rely on excellence on demand.

Surprisingly, perhaps because they are obvious, kitchen mistakes are understood, but differentiated. If the error is only obvious after the fact, you are expected to learn from it. Other kinds are more egregious, and you might want to move on. However, the emphasis is always on learning. Another tremendous tool that the research of Dan Charnas hands us, is the simple work division into processes and immersive efforts. An appointment, routine act or chore is a process. A project with strong creative elements or long term consequences is probably immersive. You need different forms of time allotment for each and different acceptability standards. A cook’s life is stressful, but if done right, entirely manageable. That’s because mise-en-place provides two elements everyone needs in their work which no leader can ultimately give anyone or should be able to take away: the dignity of a job well done and the autonomy to do it.


What role does gratitude play in your life? Gratitude Connection monthly and International Institute for Learning Senior Vice President, Judith W. Umlas in her acclaimed books, Grateful Leadership, Using the Power of Acknowledgment to Engage All Your People and Achieve Superior Results and The Power of Acknowledgment will help you see the possibilities.