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.