On The Social Nature of Work

Have you ever wondered why so many people in your organisation are constantly stressed-out and on the edge of a burnout or fundamentally disengaged? Have you ever asked yourself if that is normal?

Is it really the case that work is by its very nature hard, mostly unpleasant and a sacrifice we all have to make in order to make a living? Is work really no more than a sad fact of life we put up with because it pays the bills?

I believe there is more to work than that.

As long as we have existed, humans have come together to achieve things we could not achieve alone. Throughout the ages we have tackled difficult, dangerous and unpleasant tasks together in groups, tribes and all kinds of organisations. We did not just do that for the reward. In fact, a lot of extraordinary work was done not for extrinsic motivators such as money, titles, status or power, but for intrinsic motivators such as being part of something bigger than ourselves, doing something meaningful, making a contribution, or in the words of President Kennedy: we do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard.

They didn't build it for the money - ©Bard 2018
They didn’t build it for the money – ©Bard 2018

Humans like to work, and love to work together. It’s a deeply ingrained social drive. It’s part of what makes our lives meaningful and worth living.

Yet, that’s not what most workplaces feel like.

Because of our obsession with the economic aspects of work: money, value chains, productivity, etc. and how that makes us organise and manage the work we do, we are actually working against the natural drivers that engage and inspire people to do great work. Instead of helping people achieve their best and wanting more we make it harder.

But we can change this. If we recognise and embrace the natural drive that people have to get together and do great work we can tap into much more energy, creativity and willingness to explore and innovate than we do at the moment.

To do so we need to add a social perspective to our approach. We need to realise that organisations are not just there to produce economic value. Organisations are social structures, full of people with a need to participate, to feel proud, to have a purpose, to grow their potential and to contribute.

It’s time to re-humanise work. This means examining and challenging our beliefs and assumptions about the nature of work and how we organise and manage it.

Here are some step to consider:

  1. Challenge our assumptions:
    Critically explore and challenge everything we believe and assume about:
    • money
    • value and values
    • power
    • ownership
    • wealth
    • growth
    • sustainability
    • employment
    • exploitation
    • stakeholders
    • shareholders
    • customers
    • citizens
    • and society as a whole
  2. Reconnect With Our Social Core:
    We are a social species with a deep need to belong and to contribute. That is as much part of our authentic core as the need to compete and to win. If we want to create a better future for our children’s children we must reconnect with the social side of our being and restore the balance between our social and economic needs.
  3. Dare to be Different:
    The current system of thinking has evolved over centuries. Its underlying belief system is so ingrained in the fabric of society that anyone who dare to challenge it will be seen as strange, deviant or crazy. Yet we cannot solve our problems staying within the mindset that created them. We need the crazy people. We need to be the crazy people.
  4. Find True Value:
    We have traded well-being for wealth and civilisation for monetisation. We have achieved a lot, but have been reckless with the costs and consequences of those achievements. It’s time to use those achievements to restore some of the values we have lost and redress the balance we have disturbed. This starts by finding, together, a new sense of value and collaboration.
  5. Invite and Share:
    To restore the social nature of work we must be, well, social. The changes we need will not come from single initiatives or lonely inventors, but from reaching out to others and working together to find better ways of organising, managing and rewarding work and contributions.
  6. Close the Loop:
    Our economic way of thinking has created the concept of the ‘value chain’ – the transformation of raw materials and energy into material wealth. That chain, however is only part of the story. It can only be a chain by ignoring the costs and consequences of that transformation process. A social way of thinking needs a ‘value loop’, in which the wealth cannot be counted until the costs have been accounted for and the consequences mitigated; in which value doesn’t flow from beginning to end, where it gets concentrated and hoarded by the lucky few, but flows to everyone involved in its cycle, so it is distributed and shared.
  7. Redefine Success:
    Before we became conscious and created societies and cultures, success was mostly a matter of survival. In tribes, villages and other communities success then also became a matter of belonging and fitting in. When civilisations rose, success became more and more a matter of wealth and status. Now it is time to redefine success again and make it a matter of value and contribution.

My hope is that we can use the same level of energy that went into building the mega-corporations and the global economy we have today, and everything we have learned in that process, to re-evaluate, support and develop the human aspects underlying it all. With the right energy and focus we should be able turn our global economy into a global community that is great to live in and even greater to contribute to.


The views and opinions in this analysis are my own and do not represent positions or opinions of The Analyst Syndicate. Read more on the Disclosure Policy.

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