The week@work – the war for talent, following vs. leading, exhaustion, and maybe we should ask a sociologist

The last state to approve the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution was Indiana in 1977 – until Thursday when Nevada ratified the ERA, thirty-five years after the deadline imposed by Congress. It was a welcome antidote to the White House photo of the freedom caucus taken the same day (above). Any odds on an extension to revisit and ratify?

“Nevada has given NOW President Terry O’Neill new cause for hope. “Now it’s a two-state strategy,” she tells the Times. “It’s very exciting. Over the past five years, Illinois and Virginia have come close. I think there is clear interest in this.

In other stories this week@work, journalists and experts provided an update on the ‘war for talent’, offered an argument for balancing followers with leaders in the workplace, and expressed concern with a ‘gig economy’ advertising campaign that seemed to glorify exhaustion@work.  The last story this week@work re-examined an idea from the 60’s to establish a Council of Social Advisers to complement the Council of Economic Advisers in D.C. “It’s not just work; it’s how work offers a sense of purpose and identity.”

Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic and Adam Yearsley believe ‘The War for Talent Is Over, And Everyone Lost’. They cite workplace trends indicating more passive job seekers, the appeal of self-employment and the lure of entrepreneurship as competitive factors for employers to attract the best and the brightest, and offer a few best practices to turn things around.

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“In 1998, after a year-long study on the subject, McKinsey researchers declared that a “war for talent” was underway. In the years ahead, they said, organizations’ future success would depend on how well they could attract, develop, and retain talented employees–an ever more valuable asset in ever higher demand.

Instead of winning a war for talent, organizations appear to be waging a war on talent, repelling and alienating employees more successfully than harnessing their skills.

Today, in a world full of many more Chief People and Chief Happiness Officers, that war nevertheless appears to have been lost on all sides. Of course, many workers excel in their jobs and make pivotal contributions to their organizations. But for every one employee who does, there are many more who are underemployed, underperforming, and just plain miserable at work.”

One of the employer prescriptions for success is to “stop developing people’s leadership skills”.

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“…research suggests there’s a strong negative correlation between the amount of money spent on leadership development (which in the U.S. totals over $14 billion a year), and people’s confidence in their leaders. One of the reasons is that leaders are often deprived of negative feedback, even in training programs. We’ve gotten so used to coaching to people’s strengths that weaknesses get left unaddressed. The basics of human psychology magnify that issue; people are already prone to judging their own talents way too favorably, especially after experiencing a measure of success.”

Which links neatly into the next story of the week@work, Susan Cain‘s ‘Not Leadership Material? Good.The World Needs Followers.’

“Perhaps the biggest disservice done by the outsize glorification of “leadership skills” is to the practice of leadership itself — it hollows it out, it empties it of meaning. It attracts those who are motivated by the spotlight rather than by the ideas and people they serve. It teaches students to be a leader for the sake of being in charge, rather than in the name of a cause or idea they care about deeply. The difference between the two states of mind is profound. The latter belongs to transformative leaders like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi; the former to — well, we’ve all seen examples of this kind of leadership lately.”

Jia Tolentino used Fiverr’s new ad campaign to illustrate ‘The Gig Economy Celebrates Working Yourself To Death’.

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“It does require a fairly dystopian strain of doublethink for a company to celebrate how hard and how constantly its employees must work to make a living, given that these companies are themselves setting the terms. And yet this type of faux-inspirational tale has been appearing more lately, both in corporate advertising and in the news. Fiverr, an online freelance marketplace that promotes itself as being for “the lean entrepreneur”—as its name suggests, services advertised on Fiverr can be purchased for as low as five dollars—recently attracted ire for an ad campaign called “In Doers We Trust.” One ad, prominently displayed on some New York City subway cars, features a woman staring at the camera with a look of blank determination. “You eat a coffee for lunch,” the ad proclaims. “You follow through on your follow through. Sleep deprivation is your drug of choice. You might be a doer.”

A Fiverr press release about “In Doers We Trust” states, “The campaign positions Fiverr to seize today’s emerging zeitgeist of entrepreneurial flexibility, rapid experimentation, and doing more with less. It pushes against bureaucratic overthinking, analysis-paralysis, and excessive whiteboarding.” This is the jargon through which the essentially cannibalistic nature of the gig economy is dressed up as an aesthetic.”

Maybe we need a few less economists and a few more humanists to address our life@work

There was a lot of discussion in the media this weekend in the wake of the health care bill defeat. What are the lessons learned? We might ask the same question about the November election result, only this time maybe we should be consulting with sociologists vs. economists. Neil Irwin asked “What if Sociologists Had as Much Influence as Economists?”.

“For starters, while economists tend to view a job as a straightforward exchange of labor for money, a wide body of sociological research shows how tied up work is with a sense of purpose and identity.

“Wages are very important because of course they help people live and provide for their families,” said Herbert Gans, an emeritus professor of sociology at Columbia. “But what social values can do is say that unemployment isn’t just losing wages, it’s losing dignity and self-respect and a feeling of usefulness and all the things that make human beings happy and able to function.

…the economic nostalgia that fueled Donald J. Trump’s presidential campaign was not so much about the loss of income from vanishing manufacturing jobs. Rather, it may be that the industrial economy offered blue-collar men a sense of identity and purpose that the modern service economy doesn’t.”

At the beginning of this new week@work consider where work fits in your sense of identity and purpose. It’s not just work.

 

The Saturday Read ‘The Reader on the 6.27’ by Jean-Paul Didierlaurent (translated by Ros Schwartz)

Does our work define us? Many would argue it doesn’t and yet, we carry the bias of standard stereotypes throughout our work day toward those we encounter along the way.

This question of work identity and expectations forms the center of the story of ‘The Reader on the 6.27’ by French writer Jean-Paul Didierlaurent.

In this novel, I wanted to highlight the invisible, the battered lives, the ordinary people who often go unnoticed; and I wanted to show that each of them could have their own unexpected story. In a society where looks have become a religion and where we judge more on appearance, I wanted to highlight our prejudices and show that the clothes do not always make the man. But this book is also a declaration of love for words and for reading. All the characters have a close relationship with words – the words they read, the words they speak and finally the words of love. These words are the real cement of the novel.”

The novel’s hero is Guylain Vignolles whose workplace is dominated by an overbearing caricature of the worst boss ever, and ‘The Thing’.

“The Thing sat there, huge and menacing, right in the centre of the plant. In the fifteen years he had worked there, Guylain had never been able to call it by its real name, as if the simple act of naming it might be to acknowledge it, to demonstrate a sort of tacit acceptance, which he did not want at any cost. Refusing to name it was the last bastion he had managed to erect between it and himself, to avoid selling his soul for good.”

What if your job was to destroy the thing you loved most? That’s Guylain’s dilemma. ‘The Thing’ – the Zerstor 500 – is a hungry metal behemoth that turns books into sludge. (You will have a different view of recycling after reading the description.)

Guylain finds meaning in rescuing sheets of paper from the jaws of the “eleven-tonne monstrosity” and reading these disjointed narratives to his fellow commuters each morning on the 6.27.

Then, one day he finds a memory stick “through pure chance” as “it jumped out of the folding seat as he lowered it. A little plastic thing barely the size of a domino which bounced across the floor of the compartment and came to a halt between his feet..”

The contents of the USB are revealed as Guylain, the ‘reader on the 6.27’, replaces his daily narration from the remainders of ‘the thing’ with the story of a mysterious stranger.

“Once a year, at the spring equinox, I do a recount. Just to see, to make sure that nothing ever changes. At this very special time of year, when day and night share time equally, I do a recount with, lodged in the back of my mind, the ludicrous idea that perhaps, yes, perhaps one day, even something as unchanging as the number of tiles covering my domain from floor to ceiling might change.  It’s as hopeless and stupid as believing in the existence of Prince Charming, but deep down inside me is that little girl who refuses to die and who, once a year wants to believe in miracles.”

Julie’s domain is in the basement of a mall. And it’s her story that should forever challenge the reader’s preconceptions of society’s work identity assignments.

“When you’re a public lavatory attendant, wherever that may be, you’re not expected to keep a diary and sit there tapping away on the keyboard of your laptop. You’re only good for wiping from morning to evening, shining the chrome, scrubbing, polishing, rinsing, refurbishing the cubicles with toilet paper, and that’s it. A loo attendant is meant to clean, not to write…It’s as if there has been a misunderstanding, a miscasting. In the nether world, even a miserable twelve-inch laptop next to the tips saucer will always be a blot on the landscape…”

“I quickly had to come to terms with the fact that people generally expect only one thing of you: that you reflect back the image of what they want you to be.”

“Fit docilely into the mould, slip into this lavatory attendant’s costume – which is what I am paid to do – and play the part, sticking closely to the script.”

Mr. Didierlaurent has filled the gap in workplace literature with a beautifully told story of memorable characters who reside in the periphery of vision, but will long linger in the reader’s memory. Here is a novelist providing the lesson that not all workplace advice is to be found in the business section of the bookstore.

After reading the novel, and becoming acquainted with a cast of characters who bring it to life, perhaps we can reorient our expectations, and look beyond the surface for the complementing prism of talent that defines us all.

Resist “sticking closely to the script”, and follow Julie’s advice.

“I advance in small steps. Not a single day goes by without my writing. Not to do so would be as if I had restricted myself to the role of loo-poo-puke cleaner that they want me to play, a poor creature whose only raison d’être is the lowly occupation for which she is paid.”