We have a nightmare … and fortunately also a dream
Never have so many human beings in the developed world become physically and mentally sick simply from going to work. And never in the history of mankind have so many employee satisfaction surveys been conducted. Compensation schemes and performance management systems are engineered, tweaked and optimized without getting to the root of the issue. It’s a conundrum, as we have ample research telling us that “satisfaction” is a transactional indicator that has little to do with long-term performance on topics such as productivity and innovation. Whereas “meaningfulness” is a much more robust indicator. The time for systematic creation and measurement of meaningfulness in organizations is upon us. It’s time to wake up.
Morten Albæk, Founder & Executive Chairman of Voluntās, and Torsten Hvidt, Partner & Co-founder of QVARTZ, share much more than the professional relationship warranted by more than a decade of collaboration, projects and exchange of knowledge and ideas. You can sense this from the way Morten enters Torsten’s home without knocking and how he casually finds his way around the house. He knows where to find the secret stash of cigarettes that Torsten’s wife keeps in the back of a kitchen drawer for special occasions. There are holiday pictures in the living room with the two of them and their families together. And they kiss each other on the cheek when greeting. All signs of a true friendship. In addition to this, Morten and Torsten share a profound interest in how meaning – or the lack hereof – can make or break human beings, leadership, organizations and societies.
“A human being who gets a deep sense of meaning from the work that he or she is doing is much more productive and efficient than someone who is merely satisfied.”
MORTEN: I think that on a societal level, but especially in a leadership and organizational context, we are fundamentally confused in our distinction between satisfaction, happiness and meaningfulness. Satisfaction is when you have a need and that need is realized: I want an apple, I get an apple, I feel satisfaction. Happiness is when life for a moment unfolds itself in an extraordinarily beautiful manner. But happiness is tied to a moment and we all know that we cannot run around in a state of happiness 24/7/365. It’s simply impossible. You can’t be satisfied all the time either. Meaning, however, is different from satisfaction and happiness. The interesting thing about meaning is that you can actually experience meaning in your life constantly – including when you are dissatisfied and when you are unhappy. And this makes meaningfulness the most important building block in our existentialistic immune system as human beings. It determines our ability to overcome stressful and difficult times in life, and this obviously includes the part of our one life we spend at work.
TORSTEN: I believe that the case for meaning, which you laid out beautifully, has another dimension to it, and that is the interconnection between the individual and the organization. The individual has a fundamental possibility of choosing a workplace that has the potential of fulfilling meaning for him or her. The organization, on the other hand, has the fundamental possibility of providing a framework for its employees to actually fulfill the meaning of the organization. So, this is a two-way street providing the long-term runway for the creation of meaning. I think that is something we need to be much more mindful of going forward.
MORTEN: A human being who gets a deep sense of meaning from the work that he or she is doing is much more productive and efficient than someone who is merely satisfied. Much more innovative, less sick, and, as it turns out, also willing to go for a lower salary, although that is not and should not be the point. But this is just to say that the important parameters when running a business and succeeding in the long term can be achieved if you build strategies based on increasing the meaningfulness for each human being in your organization.
“Let’s say thank you and goodbye and introduce these new, more humanistic principles. They are morally superior and will produce more innovation, more profits and significant societal benefits.”
TORSTEN: Even though we are richer, or at least fewer people are poor by definition, even though we have access to all these wonderful pharmaceutical drugs and life-enhancing technologies, something is escaping us. Stress, sickness, personality disorders and suicide are on the rise. And this is driven, at least in part, by our life in corporations that are run on the principle of organizations being seen as machines, and in turn, humans being seen as semi-programmable robots in assembly lines or in the routines of mindless meetings and bureaucratic control mechanisms. This obviously has to change, and I think that meaning can be, as you put it, the central metric or the organizing principle. Then, obviously, comes the question: How do you go about that?
MORTEN: We need, at least from my philosophical perspective, to accept the fact that words and language create realities, also inside organizations and for leaders, and we need to delete and erase the terms “work-life balance” and “human resource management”. Because they are based on the idea that you have work on the one hand and life on the other, and you have to balance the two against each other, meaning they are two different things. Life is one and work is another. This is of course absurd: Work is an integrated part of the one life you have been given, so it’s not about work-life balance, it’s about life balance. And it’s not about managing a human as a resource, it’s about leading the potential of any human who chooses to come and work for us in such a manner that his or her potential is realized and not stagnating. So, we need to replace these phrases with what I would call life balance and human potential leadership.
TORSTEN: Not everybody is capable of leadership, that’s for sure. This is why I fundamentally believe that you should not be led from above in a classical hierarchical sense, but from ahead. People must choose their own leaders, and choose according to the situation at hand. People who are ahead on a certain topic must lead in situations relevant to that topic; others must rally around that person, let that person lead, and perhaps an hour later when the situation or context has changed, that person will no longer be the leader, but follow another leader who is more relevant in the situation. This might sound very chaotic, but I have seen it work tremendously well. It’s a check and balance on poor management because people don’t follow poor leaders, and as you said, poor management is the root cause of a lot of the problems that a purely capitalistic mindset has created. It has exhausted itself – something new has to come along, and I fundamentally believe that introducing freedom of choice and democratic principles will be ingredients in the new ways of working.
MORTEN: I agree. We need to accept that leadership is not a profession; it’s not a position; it’s an individual moral quest that you give yourself. And if leadership is a moral quest, you also accept the moral responsibility that resides between you and your employees. You are actually carrying a little piece of the other person’s destiny in your hands. If you accept the fact that leadership is not just about managing a resource, but it’s actually about being an important person in that other human being’s life – as a caretaker of the other person’s human potential – then you will go to work every day with a different perspective than the person who sees it as his job to optimize a portfolio of resources that happens to be made up of fellow human beings. Since we know that leadership is the primary driver for stress and other problems in the workplace, a leader with a moral approach would ask her or himself on a regular basis: Have I conducted myself and achieved my results in such a manner that it has affected my team in a positive and meaningful way?
It’s not about managing a human as a resource, it’s about leading the potential of any human who chooses to come and work for us in such a manner that his or her potential is realized and not stagnating.
TORSTEN: The metrics are pretty clear; do people become ill working for you, or don’t they? Are you able to show compassion for other human beings, or are you only interested in extracting the value? Is there room for purpose or only for profit? All these things will need to come to the forefront. The old system has exhausted itself; something new will need to materialize, and I believe that what we’re seeing now are the contours of a new approach.
MORTEN: A relevant final point on that is that you also get more business value out of taking this approach. That is a very important message for me to convey – to use my old vocabulary from Vestas, it’s a little bit like changing the energy mix of the world from fossil fuels to renewable energy. We can easily sustain growth in the world based on sustainable energy, exactly as we can sustain growth by taking another approach to leadership.
TORSTEN: I would argue that a transition to a new approach to leadership, as we have seen it in quite a few global companies in the Nordics, will result in dramatically better results and much stronger positions for the future. So, I simply don’t see any arguments for old-fashioned command and control and top-down management systems. I don’t think they have a compelling future. I think they will continue to produce societal disadvantages such as stress and sickness, and that’s why this system, which was an integral part of the industrial revolution, has exhausted itself. Let’s say thank you and goodbye and introduce these new, more humanistic principles. They are morally superior and will produce more innovation, more profits and significant societal benefits.
MORTEN: Exactly, and I believe that we are now seeing a broader and deeper acknowledgement of the fact that humanism and capitalism in their own rights, individually, have not provided the change that we as humans need. So, what is happening is that those two -isms are floating together. Becoming one. Which is what I call humanistic capitalism, meaning that capitalism is a system and the quality of this system depends on what you put into it. It’s about acknowledging that if you want to generate sustainable growth, if you want to generate high returns to your shareholders, if you want to build a strong and deep relationship with your commercial stakeholders, you need to take your point of departure in humanistic virtues. So that humanism and capitalism are no longer in opposition to each other, but instead coexist, and become one.
I simply don’t see any arguments for old-fashioned command and control and top-down management systems. I don’t think they have a compelling future.
Morten carries several titles to his name; philosopher, author, advisor to the Vatican City State, former CMO at Vestas as well as Founder & Chairman of Voluntās, an advisory firm specialized in the creation of meaningful culture and brands. Furthermore, Morten is the author of numerous books, most lately the no 1 bestseller “One life”. Finally, and more importantly, Morten is married to Sara, father of (soon to be) three and a close friend of Torsten Hvidt.
Having been in the industry for the past 20 years, Torsten Hvidt, Partner and Co-founder at QVARTZ, is a veteran in the field of strategy consulting. He is fully versed in classic literature and a devout believer in humanism and people-centric cultures. Torsten is married to Tulle, the father of four children, and counts Morten Albæk as one of his closest friends.