I received many emails in response to the first part of my perspective “On the importance of building something together” which led me to the – at least preliminary – conclusion that it pays off to collaborate. However, this individual or also collective pay-off is very diverse as expected. Joint themes circled around “meaning”, “learning”, and “holistic/connected perspectives” which are perceived as particularly enriching in an ever-more specialized work environment in which “siloism” often inhibits the emergence of a communal spirit and joint undertakings.
I also received reflections from people who were more hesitant to “invest” in building something together – mostly due to lingering “sunk cost traumata” as I call it. If you have experienced a prisoner’s dilemma situation, have been taken advantage of or have perceived a gap in matching expectations you might be less inclined to (re)invest in building something together. But luckily, hesitant responders have been very eager to explore ways of (re)infusing a “soul” into our doings and reducing existing alienation while simultaneously meeting individual and collective goals – the second question I raised for discussion.
Cultural experiences offer insights into how the process of building something together could be facilitated: again, examples from Japan and the Japanese Pavilion during my most recent visit of the Venice Biennale came to my mind. Last year in Tokyo, we were passing through an industrial area with warehouses and a gigantic lock for channel passing of boats on the way from Haneda airport. They could have left this lock door blank and grey but to the contrary: somebody made the effort to paint a beautiful piece of art on it and thereby made it come alive and infuse a soul into it.
This is just one example of how the Japanese culture puts attention to detail, the careful execution of craftmanship, and the meaning of that work that is connected to a greater whole. Most of us work in service and knowledge-intensive industries these days and the question is how what we do can have a lasting impact, relate to what others do and satisfy our underlying motives that drive our doings intrinsically.
I’d like to take the theme of the Japanese Pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale as an example: Architecture is seen as a “living creature” – creating something, be it a building or an organization, involves giving it life stated Takamasa Yoshizaka, the Pavilion’s architect. In a way architecture is for a building what a business plan is for an organization/undertaking. You have to continue to nurture the place after the architecture is formally completed and carefully combine details that breathe life into it. Objects communicate. Shapes communicate. And this goes without saying. In organizations, it is mostly people who communicate – unless they are “only” focused on their extremely specialized work in their non-connected “silos”. And here is the dilemma: the experience curve has greatly increased the quality of outputs and the more we “produce” the faster we recoup sunk cost. But those who produce or deliver a service seem to have lost interest – they lack connectedness, sense, and incentives (here predominantly non-monetary) that address their motivations and underlying motives.
United airlines just reported that its pilots don’t want to be promoted to captains anymore because despite higher pay this career step entails less flexibility. Consequently, United might face a severe shortage of captains already by the end of this year exacerbating schedule shortfalls as already flights cannot take off for a lack of pilots. I raised this issue in my previous perspective “ON GETTING FROM ENTERTAINMENT TO ENGAGEMENT”: People can work around systems and cope with the “organizational failure” of support – to a certain degree – whereas the system cannot function without the buy-in of the people within.
What is a strategy without the people? Nothing. What are people without a strategy? They act nevertheless, they contribute something. They seek a purpose. They form a community for exchange and survival. Beyond survival they pursue goals that satisfy higher needs – passions, self-fulfillment etc. The default mode is, thus, that they contribute and build something together (this has been the predominant mode of creation and innovation for millions of years). However, increasing specialization and selective monetary incentives (targeting specific tasks or individuals) have eroded the human predisposition of a communal spirit. In many situations, we find ourselves not only in a prisoner’s dilemma but also held captive in the “modernity trap” – an affluent society of individuals that has passed the cusp, pushing consumption and returns to excess.
Pointing to climate change Antonio Guterres postulated that “Rising seas are sinking futures.” With respect to societal change, I would change this statement to “Rising returns are sinking futures.” Human resources are our most precious resource in the future besides all technological innovation and they have been employed for the sake of ever-increasing returns while neglecting needs and their essential contributions beyond what has been enforced and incentivized monetarily.
In a thriving economy with sufficient human resources the prevailing attitude has been that “if we build it, they will come.” Not much thought has been given to people’s motivations and underlying motives. Incentive and compensation systems were designed based on classic modernistic “factory” work, leading to the above-mentioned siloism and alienation. Today, “if you don’t nourish (what you have built), they (human resources) will leave.” Or they will find ways around it. Migration patterns of remote workers have severely impacted entire communities as post-pandemic remote workers are highly paid (and high-taxes paying!) in contrast to pre-pandemic remote workers who usually took a pay-cut to be able to work from home due to personal reasons, reported the NYT.
Today, the major reason for on-site office work is communal interaction for many professionals. If organizations cannot provide this “spirit,” high potentials do not see a reason to be in an office unless their scope of work explicitly requires it. Consequently, the demand for office space is expected to decrease substantially – in some cities dramatically, such as in San Francisco, projecting a drop in demand by 20%. If office space lacks meaning, it will die. If work is soulless, people will leave.
These examples have shown that if we continue to ignore people’s motives it will backfire. We have to invest in reinfusing a communal spirit into the workplace, but how to?
1. Humanistic approach
A humanistic approach as a philosophy stresses the importance of human values and dignity. It proposes that people can resolve problems through science and reason. Rather than looking to religious traditions, humanism focuses on helping people live well, achieve personal growth, and make the world a better place. It helps creating a respectful work environment which is the basis for building something together. Humanism could also serve to nurture organizational culture and tackle existing soullessness and alienation – especially if the work itself is highly specialized and focusing on the greater whole would compromise outcome quality. A collaborative approach among employees can even exist detached from and because of a superordinated philosophy that everybody buys into (independent of the work itself).
2. Level playing field
The playing field sets the framework for building something together. It defines ground rules in a complex context and thereby creates an (eco)system. How can this system contribute to a communal spirit? The Pavilion of the Czech Republic at the Venice Biennale offered interesting insights into systemic solutions: they refer to classic instruments such as education, policy-making, and legal norms, but also define in more detail a decent minimum wage, the predictability in working conditions and labor law enforcement, collective bargaining, gender equality & equal opportunity.
3. Genuine interest
A genuine interest into your work and other people’s work beyond your own silo triggers and facilitates a communal spirit. It is also a matter of respect and makes your and others’ work more enjoyable, productive, and impactful. Instead of waiting for others to engage you into a topic why not showing a proactive interest beyond your actual scope of work? Even if not directly related to a specialized task this approach triggers intrinsic motivation and interest in building something together – it nourishes the soul of the individual, his or her attitude to work and life, and thus to collaboration.
4. Attention to detail
Attention to detail also means showing respect and leveraging potentials for collaboration. “Excellence is never an accident,” said Aristotle, “It is always the result of high intention, sincere effort, and intelligent execution.” Hard work and accuracy in the process are key to building something together. The classic pianistic principle – stated an amateur in the FT – appropriately applies to business and life: “if something is not as it should be, pay attention to the details. At the piano, change the action even slightly and you alter the sound.“
5. Most importantly: Courage
Courage means doing something because it is the right thing to do. In a recent engagement by the French Hospital Federation, we were commissioned to analyze management competencies in five territories that have implemented population health management. One of the nurses stated the following which became a common thread of all conversations:
“I’m picking up the phone to coordinate care for a patient. I am not paid extra money for doing it, but I do it because it is the right thing to do. For the patient. For my professional aspiration. Although it is extra work in this moment it will make my life easier in the long term and the patient’s life better.”
This statement best describes what I heard from care providers when listening to how they have made population health management work in life and practice. It encompasses a reflection on personal engagement, economic thinking, and a caring attitude that is driven by a joint purpose and a clear “reason why” coordination and a communal spirit make sense.
The French example is based on human interaction, very little monetary resources to begin with, a joint sense of “what needs to be done”, a collaborative community, trust and communication, and the French culture of conviviality. I call it relationship-centered care that is based on effective and efficient human interaction. It follows guidelines and best practices but is equally based on pragmatism, humanity, and a heart-felt approach to care.
To conclude, reinfusing a soul into our doings to reduce alienation and pave the ground for building something together requires courage and “Herzensbildung” (education of the heart). It is less about training and more about doing (what is the right thing to do). It is less about skills and more about attitude.
We are at a crossroads today: we have to build a business case for something that is hard to measure, requires a change in mindset and detaching incentives from individual tasks to allow for a communal spirit to thrive. Strategic communication is key in this process because purposeful management does not happen by itself.
In our work we have to ask not only what people’s needs are but also what they will contribute. Thus, the key question is not “what is in for them”, but “what we can achieve together.” Because sustainable business strategy is built on partnerships.
Please let me know what you think in the comments or directly by email. As my audience you are the most important people that make a difference.
Take care, be safe, and enjoy what you can. Stay tuned for any updates https://www.linkedin.com/in/prof-dr-katharina-janus-b391321/