Redefining Work

Chapter 5:
Redefining Work

What Definition of “Work” Do you bring to work with you?

Most people define work almost exclusively in terms of the external results produced by the work. Building a house is work. Loading a trust is work. Selling a car is work. Running a corporation is work. Work is about doing, and tends to be defined solely in terms of the results. Here are some of the most common answers I get when I ask people what words they associate with “work”:

– What I must do versus what I want to do.
- What I do for pay.
– Getting “the job” done.
- Doing what the boss tells me to do.
– What I do that’s associated with “hard,” “challenging.”
– Accomplishment.
– Obligation, duty.
– Responsibility, accountability.

Our definitions are mental constructs, like internal lenses through which we view reality. Sometimes we can only guess at what they are through a process of deduction. Sometimes they become known in moments of direct insight.

This chapter is dedicated to examining the definition of “work” that we carry with us when we go to work. We are used to thinking of definitions as meanings of words found in dictionaries. We are not so used to thinking that we have a choice in the definitions we accept and that those definitions can make a difference. But the meaning we give to “work” becomes the context and the background conversation for all our actions at work.

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Learning While Working: An Idea Whose Time Has Come – The time has come to acknowledge learning as a real component of work and not merely a chance by-product. I doubt that anyone reading this book has not been told in a thousand different ways, “We are living in a world of accelerating change. . . . We live in the information age. . . . As fast as we learn new information and technologies, they become obsolete. . . . “This is the era of the Knowledge Worker.”

Peter Drucker, author of Post-Capitalist Society and more than twenty other books, is one of the most influential thinkers about the history of modern management, its current state, and its future. He coined the term knowledge worker in reference to the fact that knowledge in the head of the worker, more than any other resource, makes the world economy move. Says Drucker,

Knowledge is different from all other resources. It makes itself constantly obsolete, so that today’s advanced knowledge is tomorrow’s ignorance. And the knowledge that matters is subject to rapid and abrupt shifts—from pharmacology to genetics in the health care industry, for example, or from PCs to the Internet in the computer industry. The productivity of knowledge and knowledge workers will not be the only competitive factor in the world economy. It is, however, likely to become the decisive factor.*

The most obvious implication of the “knowledge worker” is that work is inextricably linked with one’s ability to learn. For the knowledge worker, merely getting “the job done” is a waste of time unless “know-how” has been increased in the process. The old definition of work said you took what you already knew and used it to produce results for profit. The new definition says that work is a process of growing your capabilities while in the process of producing results in order to be better able to produce future results.

In the knowledge age, learning as well as performance contributes to bottom-line profit for the individual worker and the enterprise, as well as to the economic health of the society. In the recent industrial economy, it may have been true that a company could succeed by hiring people with the know-how to perform certain functions. This is becoming less and less true. Only those companies that have developed the capability to grow capability are going to succeed.

*Peter Drucker, Post-Capitalist Society (New York: HarperBusiness, 1994).

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A Sales Team That Decided to Make Enjoyment a Priority – One sales manager I know believed so strongly in the value of balancing the work triangle that he took what I considered a rather extreme measure. His team had the worst results of any team in the company for the previous six months. He had done everything in his power to try to improve performance results and he constantly talked about increasing revenues. But he figured that he had little to lose in trying to re-balance the triangle. He announced that for the following quarter, he was suspending all sales quotas! He let the sales team know they were to continue selling, but that they would not be held accountable for reaching any specified levels of revenues. What he expected them to do was to learn how to have fun selling. He asked his salespeople to rate their current enjoyment levels on a scale of one to ten and to set any goals they wanted to improve their “enjoyment” scores.

During subsequent sales meetings, they discussed what they had done to bring more enjoyment to their work as salespeople. Most became much more aware of what interfered with their enjoyment. For some, it was fear of failure. For others, it was following rote procedures. Others discovered that they were working themselves to the point of exhaustion. Performance results were not even discussed, just submitted on short reports.

To the great surprise of the sales team as well as their manager, by the end of the quarter, the team was leading all others in the company in sales results!

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