An organisational manifesto to deliver meaning

Alain de Botton, philosopher, writes books that have been described as ‘a philosophy of everyday life’. Recently he was interviewed by an HR based job site about work and meaning (see the full interview here). In particular de Botton was scathing about education which didn’t equip youngsters for working life (nothing new here).

But what was interesting was his emphasis on finding meaning amidst a ‘false sense of ambition’. This false sense of ambition was created by misrepresentation of what working life is really like, fuelled by organisations who portray themselves as ‘Disney World’ as well as the media who glamourise a narrow range of careers over others.

He outlined a number of things educators, the media and organisations should do to make much better use of the skills and talents of young workers today. His list is supplemented here by a few of my own suggestions:

  • Being more honest with employees and prospective employees about what day to day working life consists of. For instance, providing them with an opportunity to try out a different job before committing to it. I also wonder whether mentoring of younger workers by more experienced staff members may provide more honest conversations about the daily graft of working whilst, at the same time, create cross generational relationships and friendships at work.
  • Provide stable jobs with real opportunities for development and growth for graduates and non graduates so non graduates in particular are not channelled into low level, dead end jobs.
  • When individuals become disillusioned with their jobs, help them go through a period of introspection to understand themselves and learn about their strengths and weaknesses before rushing into the next job. Offer career counselling as part of a broader suite of training.
  • Help individuals find meaning in purpose in the work they do. If they are engaged in a small part of a larger process, help them see the bigger end goal.
  • Being bold and publishing pay grades. A report by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Wellbeing Economics recommends that large organisations should be required to publish pay ratios. This is because they believe that pay inequality is corrosive for wellbeing, not just among the poorest but right across society. Whilst this is not necessarily directly related to purpose and meaning it is difficult to see how employees can respect organisations without such openness and honesty.
  • Encourage a culture of well being. Places of work are not, as de Botton says, Disney World. However, they can be made a lot more pleasant by training individuals in life skills to help them cope with the usual ups and days of working life. Providing training in mindfulness, encouraging exercise and providing access to the open air, all enable individuals to develop necessary skills in coping. If today’s education is not providing it, then organisations need to fill the void.

The key to meaning is a feeling that you are contributing to something worthwhile greater than yourself, so that at the end of the working day you have left the world ever so slightly better than it was at the beginning. The successful organisation of the future will be the organisation which is helping individuals find meaning in their work and fulfilling those higher order needs.

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What you choose to focus on

Went to an Action for Happiness talk by Tal Ben Shahar and he left us with a really useful set of messages:

1. Focus on what’s good

2. Ask questions that help us find solutions rather than focus on the negative

3. When you appreciate the good, the good appreciates – in other words, focusing on happiness means we get more happiness in our lives

We do this by using techniques such as a solutions focused approach to problem solving, appreciative inquiry or working with strengths. However, so many of us focus on what’s wrong and what needs fixing. Perhaps we could focus on what is working and how we might get more of that.

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Words that sell

Interesting info-graphic

John Caples book Tested Advertising Methods talks in detail about how words work as well.

Words that (almost) always convert - Infographic

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How story telling affects the brain

There is lots of research about why stories work.  This picture shows some of the effect on the brain.

How story telling affects the brain

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Brown’s Job

by Robley Feland – 1920

Brown is gone, and many men in the trade are wondering who is going to get Brown’s job.

There has been considerable speculation about this. Brown’s job was reputed to be a good job. Brown’s former employers, wise, grey-eyed men, have had to sit still and repress amazement, as they listened to bright, ambitious young men and dignified older ones seriously apply for Brown’s job.

Brown had a big chair and a wide, flat-topped desk covered with a sheet of glass. Under the glass was a map of the United States. Brown had a salary of thirty thousand dollars a year. And twice a year Brown made a “trip to the coast” and called on every one of the firm’s distributors.

He never tried to sell anything. Brown wasn’t exactly in the sales department. He visited with the distributors, called on a few dealers, and once in a while made a little talk to a bunch of salesmen. Back at the office, he answered most of the important complaints, although Brown’s job wasn’t to handle complaints. Brown wasn’t in the credit department either, but vital questions of credit got to Brown, somehow or other, and Brown would smoke and talk and tell a joke, and untwist his telephone cord and tell the credit manager what to do.

Whenever Mr. Wythe, the impulsive little president, working like a beaver, would pick up a bunch of papers and peer into a particularly troublesome or messy subject, he had a way of saying, «What does Brown say? What does Brown say? What the hell does Brown say? – Well, why don’t you do it, then?» And that was disposed.

Or when there was a difficulty that required quick action and lots of it, together with tact and lots of that, Mr. Wythe would say, «Brown, you handle that.» And then one day the directors met unofficially and decided to fire the superintendent of No. 2 Mill. Brown didn’t hear of this until the day after the letter had gone. «What do you think of it, Brown?» asked Mr. Wythe. Brown said, «That’s all right. The letter won’t be delivered until tomorrow morning, and I’ll get him on the wire and have him start East tonight. Then I’ll have his stenographer send the letter back here, and I’ll destroy it before he sees it.» The others agreed, «That’s the thing to do.»

Brown knew the business he was in. He knew the men he worked with. He had a whole lot of sense, which he apparently used without consciously summoning his judgment to his assistance. He seemed to think good sense.

Brown is gone, and men are applying for Brown’s job. Others are asking who is going to get Brown’s job – bright, ambitious young men, dignified older men.

Men who are not the son of Brown’s mother, nor the husband of Brown’s wife, nor the product of Brown’s childhood – men who never suffered Brown’s sorrows nor felt his joys, men who never loved the things that Brown loved nor feared the things he feared – are asking for Brown’s job.

Don’t they know that Brown’s chair and his desk, with the map under the glass top, and his pay envelope, are not Brown’s job? Don’t they know that they might as well apply to the Methodist Church for John Wesley’s job?

Brown’s former employers know it. Brown’s job is where Brown is.



Brown’s Job was first published in 1920 in The Wedge, the house organ of the George H. Batten advertising agency – and as an advertisement in 1928, when Batten merged with Barton, Durstine & Osborn to become BBDO (where Robley Feland was a director).

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Meaning – a great case study

The most recent edition of People Management (March 2014) contains an article on an SME, Fittleworth, which highlights the importance of authenticity when creating a culture with meaning, purpose and compassion.

Frittleworth’s business is not glamorous – it is a mail order delivery service of ostomy, continent and wound care products, which has managed to grow significantly over the past few years, despite being unable to compete on price. But it is a delivery service provided with compassion and care. It is about ‘calling in on a lot of my friends on the way (home)’ or setting off on Christmas Day morning to be certain supplies get to a customer in a hospice or trekking up 22 flights of stairs to ensure a parcel reaches its destination.

Fittleworth does a number of things very well: they prioritise cultural fit of employees over everything else; they emphasise the customers and personalise training through The Frittleworth Way – a street populated by fictional characters each with their own back story and life changing condition; and perhaps most importantly they don’t try to impose values on others through ‘pillars on a wheel’ or through traditional corporate processes such as employee surveys and good service awards.

In short, Frittleworth has rejected much of what many large corporates have chosen as their route to employee engagement and opted for an authentic and personal approach.  HR Director Peter Waller has said that “it is more important to recognise the wonderful things that happen in our business on an everyday basis… the very nature of trying to define and make something tangible means you can inadvertently undermine it.”

For me this raises a key question as to the value of tightly worded mission and value statements which pescribe what individuals should believe in and how they must behave. This leaves little room for authenticity. Frittleworth do have values – dedication, integrity, caring and quality – but it seems they are leaving it up to their employees to interpret what that means for them, sharing everyday stories of heroism and going that extra mile without great fanfare. Perhaps this is the way forward and something we could earn all learn from.

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Best Possible Self – Day Three – Eureka

Over the past three mornings I have been engaged in an exercise aimed at increasing my levels of joy. What I’ve found is that it has increased my levels of creativity. So much so that I’ve managed to build the outline of a 9 month development programme aimed at building meaning in work.

Meaning is a critical aspect of eudaimonic fulfillment and impacts our attitude to how we approach our lives on a day to day basis. As such, it has a huge impact on the satisfaction and meaning we derive from, for instance, our work.

Based on a Gallup study of a representative sample of more than 8,000 American workers,  people who love their jobs:

• Use their strengths every day

• Feel that they are an important part of their organisation’s future.

• Are surrounded by colleagues who care about their overall well-being.

• Are excited about the future because of a leader’s enthusiasm and vision.

As it’s impossible to find such a job advertised on a job site, it’s critical to develop skills and tools for individuals to create these jobs for themselves. And that’s what the Eureka moment was about.

Amy Wrzesniewski, professor of organisational behavior at the Yale School of Management, says people reinvent their jobs by exercising the little bit of control they have at work. Through what she calls job crafting, people can reshape and redefine their jobs. In a paper she co-wrote, she says you can use your knowledge of what you do best to choose “to do fewer, more, or different tasks than prescribed in the formal job.” Changing the quality and amount of interaction with your colleagues, she says, can bring a renewed sense of belonging and purpose.

A LOVE-WORTHY job isn’t just for a privileged few — say, those who went to red brick universities or public schools. With a deep understanding of what drives you and what you are best at, you can make almost any job more lovable and more MEANINGFUL.

Small tweeks matter. Do you know what your strengths are? Are you using them to best effect in your work? Does your boss know what your strengths are? How can you tweek your work to play to your strengths and make it more meaningful?

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How to be your best possible self

I am embarking on a 3 day writing exercise to boost my levels of joy.

The Best Possible Self (BPS) exercise is one originally used by Pennebaker to help trauma victims get over the trauma by writing about their experience.The writing acts as a therapeutic means of getting closure and it seems to work. The BPS has since been hijacked by the positive psychology community and turned on its’ head so that we now write 15 mintues, uninterrupted ‘brain dump’ on our perfect future (maybe 3 to 5 years out).  This morning I had three brainwaves during the first day of writing. One of them was writing this blog and by doing so hope to prolong the positive feelings experienced through writing. It also means I am introducing others to this fantastic, short and very efficient exercise. What other exercise that you know of produces 3 ideas worth exploring after 15 mintues?
And there’s more to come: this is only day one.


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Employees want emotional support but can managers give it?

This blog summarises major research that appeared throughout 2013 on the leader – follower relationship and appeared in the BPS Occupational Research Digest. It raises questions about the emotional expectations of workers today and the value, if any, of the transformational leader.

There was plenty of research on the give and take between leader and follower, and the ways this can fall out of balance. This can be due to a clash of expectations: for instance, managers are likely to see emotional support of those they manage as something over-and-above their normal duties. They expect their employees to reciprocate in kind, but employees just don’t see it that way. In their eyes, managers are paid to support them.

Manager expectations can be a powerful alignment tool, drawing more performance out of those judged to ‘have the stuff’ by inspiring them and painting a picture of what is possible. But a theoretical paper explains that the reason why this so-called Pygmalion effect doesn’t always hold may be because some leaders aren’t trusted enough for their followers to take a risk and make big changes.

There is no single optimal way to lead: a team’s aims and general attitude matters, as does each individual follower, in terms of how much they trust you and where they are in their organisational journey. Data that suggests both directive (perform work as I have told you to) and empowering (find your own routes to delivering outcomes) leadership styles can have performance benefits, in the appropriate contexts. Empowerment, it appears, can reap long-term rewards relative to direction, but often at the cost of immediate performance.

And transformational leadership, sometimes considered a ‘holy grail’, appears to matter more when followers are low in energy, less curious and fairly pessimistic. Employees with naturally positive mindsets don’t benefit so much from the transformational leader’s inspiration and motivational effect – because they are in a good place to begin with.

Leaders may have expectations about us, but we also have expectations about them. Demanding our leaders act accountably appears to be particularly important when the leader is an outsider – a business pro heading up a research institute, for instance. Data suggests that the necessity of justifying their actions leads them to make decisions that are more favourable to their team members. Meanwhile, we’re relatively tolerant of tentative behaviour from leaders from inside the organisation, willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. Unless they are a woman, in which case we judge them for it.

And on that note….

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Play to your strengths to create a meaningful life

I love this article by Bridget-Grenville-Cleave which appeared in Positive Psychology news. It so neatly highlights not only the importance of playing to our strengths, but by doing so, it is possible to create a meaningful life.




Earlier this month I got together with several of my colleagues to share ideas about using the VIA Character Strengths at work. We talked about how acceptable the VIA Strengths are in business circles (in our experience, very), how people react to their VIA Strengths, and how we use them in our training.

We also shared examples of the ways in which we’ve seen the same strength displayed in different people. Take Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence. Here are the stories of three people who have Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence among their top strengths.

Carole’s Story

Carole is a quietly confident 40-something stay-at-home mom with two kids. She comes across as pretty reserved and self-contained. When asked to talk about how Appreciation of Beauty shows up in her life, she immediately warms up with enthusiasm for her love of natural beauty, her sense of connection to the world around her, and her love of the great outdoors.

Nature Wallpaper

Nature Wallpaper

I’ve always felt more comfortable outside than I do indoors. I always wanted to be outside as a child, come rain or shine. I can remember, as a youngster,  the feeling of joy and wonder in my heart,  playing in the little wood at the end of my best friend’s garden, and my delight at seeing little woodland anemones, primroses and suchlike peeping up in the Spring, that earthy, leafy smell, and experiencing the seasons change.

When asked how Appreciation of Beauty shows up in her life now, she’s almost apologetic.  She describes the family’s weekend rambles in the countryside. She doesn’t just savor the fine views. She actively tends the countryside by picking up stray litter dropped by careless walkers or blown there by the wind.

I feel so in tune with nature that I feel compelled to look after it and keep it looking beautiful. My family thinks I’m mad but I actually enjoy it. It makes me feel I’m caring for the world.”

Mel’s Story

Mel surprised her family 20 years ago. When she finished her math degree at a top university, she went straight into the antiques restoration business.



Looking back, it was a natural step for me and it fits perfectly with my strength of Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence. As a youngster I liked nothing better than scouring jumble sales for beautiful trinkets which I collected, cleaned, and displayed in my bedroom when my friends were talking about fashion, boys, and makeup. My mother used to collect china figurines when I was small, and I can still picture them all – gazing at them in their glass cabinet because we weren’t allowed to touch. I remember the day I discovered the figurine of a dancer in a junk shop – it had a crack on one side. I felt that such a beautiful piece with such intricate detail shouldn’t be consigned to the junk – I just had to restore it. It wasn’t just the beauty of the piece, it was the recognition of the hours of work it took someone to make it and paint it. And that’s how it started. Since then I just haven’t looked back.”

Mel runs her own workshop specializing in restoring 18th century figurines, vases, and tableware.

Rachel’s Story

Rachel is a successful learning and development manager in a big consulting firm. She was initially surprised that Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence was one of her top VIA strengths until she discussed it with friends.

It’s funny how sometimes you can’t see what’s under your nose, but straightaway they all said ‘Just look at the job you do, and the way you do it!’ and of course they’re right. When I run L&D workshops, I’m full of energy and enthusiasm – I love making sure that I design them to look and feel exactly right. It gives me a real buzz making the whole thing come together. And I’m always noticing new role models, people who do X or Y really well – if they’re in the business I invite them to come and talk in my workshops! It’s true that I love seeing people be the best that they can be. If the work I do helps people excel, that’s really gratifying.”

Strengths show up in different ways in different people. We just need to be alert to the different ways they can manifest.


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