How to be less optimal
As we consider how to embrace outsiders, how to be inclusive in the truest sense, I find myself drawn to what I consider to be the central question of Diversity & Divergency: how can you build a team that simultaneously acts as a coherent unit while maintaining the individual strengths that made the members valuable to you in the first place?
Is this even possible? I think it is. And the fact that we find it hard to comprehend tells us a lot about how badly we have strayed from a human-centric approach to work.
Our systems of management are designed with the very worst model of humanity in mind. We assume that people are lazy, selfish, grasping and that we need to control them. Or, on the other hand, we assume that people will only work if they are focused on themselves. But what if we’re wrong? What if people are searching for the chance to contribute to something meaningful? And what if, given that something meaningful, they would end up delivering not only better work but more of themselves in the process?
It seems that we’re caught between two extremes; that of obedience and team identity, and that of individuality and personal flair; ants, or cats.
Ants are all about the team. They each have a role and they serve the queen without question and without hesitation. Ants don’t have aspirations. They don’t jockey for position. They do only what they’re told. And they’re good at what they do. So much so that there are 10,000 trillion of them on the planet. Some have estimated that all the ants together weigh as much as all the humans. But one thing ants aren’t is creative. They’re the very definition of automatons. They follow simple rules and that’s it. Which is probably why you never see any ant stand-up comedy.
Then, on the exact other end of the spectrum, you’ve got cats. Cats don’t give a damn about anyone but themselves. They don’t follow orders. They don’t co-operate. Cats are the self-sufficient loners of the animal kingdom and when they do live with other animals, like us humans, it’s pretty obvious that it’s a one-way street of a relationship. In this way cats have shown themselves to be pretty creative; they have managed to train humans to do their bidding, after all. But you wouldn’t want them working for you, right?
This dichotomy; the individual or team-centric workplace, seems like a lock. But in all of this, we’re working with an outdated concept of motivation. Sure, if we humans are merely rational economic actors seeking only to maximise our rewards while minimising our effort, it would make sense to treat us like ants or cats. But experience – and mountains of psychological evidence – points to a very different idea of humanity.
Play is central to my work – you can read more about it in this article. Play has many powerful properties; among these properties is the way in which play makes us all players, all equals within the bounds of the game. Consider what would happen if someone taking part in a game of some sort tried to use it to further their political interests outside of the game? Would the game survive? Of course not. They’d be what we call spoilsports. And nobody likes to be a spoilsport. Play is sacred and the game becomes the thing; we players each become parts of the game but we don’t in any way lose our personal traits. In fact, in play, we are freed to express ourselves because it isn’t real; it’s just play.[clickToTweet tweet=”Play is a state in which we let go of reality while not losing ourselves” quote=”Play is a state in which we let go of reality while not losing ourselves” theme=”style6″]
You can see this when children play make-believe or when teens play Dungeons and Dragons (make-believe with dice). You can even see it when adults play. Yes, adults play. A surprisingly large amount when you get into it. Play is a state in which we let go of reality while not losing ourselves. And it points the way to how we can do that in our work.
One of the many reasons I love what I do is that when I go into a company to run a course or a workshop, to make something happen, what we’re doing is always something new, something different set outside of the normal world my clients inhabit. They wouldn’t need to shell out for my fee if it wasn’t. And in these moments, while there is still a degree of hierarchy in place, it’s a little more loose-weave, and because the thing we’re doing is waiting to be formed we treat it rather like one treats a newborn baby; for a little while we forget about ourselves and the object of our work becomes the most important thing.
These moments show me a third way, an alternative to the selfish vs selfless options that we are presented with. In these moments, like in play, we are united by something more important than the work. Why, I wonder, can’t this be the case all of the time?
The problem with team or individual-focused work is that it assumes a kind of selfish self-interest, a zero sum game. It amuses me to notice that we seem to believe that all humans are driven by this selfish self-interest. All, that is, apart from ourselves and all the people we personally know.
For a moment I’d like you to take stock of how you spend your time and apportion your effort. To what extent could you call yourself ‘gain-focused’? How optimised is your life?
Consider how much time and effort you put into the following:
- Charitable work
- Fashion and style
- Playing games
- Family obligations
- Social causes
- Local, national and international politics
- Hobbies and crafts
- Cooking special or more interesting meals
- Decorating your home
- Throwing parties or celebrating special events
All together I suspect that the vast majority of human activity is not optimised for personal gain. We live gloriously sub-optimal lives in that regard. If we truly cared only for personal gain we’d be bland, dull, mean creatures. We’d each be some monstrous Scrooge character. But we’re not. We’re humans. Wonderful, glorious, unfathomably irrational humans.
Which leads us neatly to the problem we have to solve; we need to think better of one another. If we could, for a moment, accept that humans are not, nor should they be, gain-optimising machines interested only in getting more for less, would we not design our workplaces completely differently?
All of the above listed non-optimal things like cooking nice meals, decorating our homes, going to protests or putting on fancy dress for Halloween, have one thing in common: they are meaningful to us in and of themselves. And because they are meaningful we focus on them in ways that we just can’t do when the motivation is extrinsic.
Extrinsic motivators will get you compliance. But intrinsically motivating tasks are how you achieve true engagement. Like play, meaningful tasks tap into our autotelic selves, they compel us to act with our complete self without making the task about us.
Maybe I’m a wild-eyed idealist but what if I’m not? Isn’t it worth a try? Toss away the carrot and the stick and instead focus on making work meaningful. As far as I’m concerned, this should be the primary job of management. Forget performance and compliance. Those are losing games. Make the work meaningful and then let the people focus on it. That’s what businesses need to do. And, I think, what we all need to do as a species if we’re going to tackle the existential crisis of the future; when we genuinely don’t need to work anymore and no number of carrots and no amount of sticks will persuade us to do so.
When AI and automation have made work optional, when we truly are post-scarcity, unless we are driven by some intrinsic motivation, something more important than obedience or personal gain, we’ll be in trouble. Which is why I think we need to begin now the work of making the meaning motive our core principal. Not only will it help us to bring more of ourselves to work, it may well save humanity. How’s that for a two-for-one deal?[clickToTweet tweet=”Extrinsic motivators get you compliance. But intrinsically motivating tasks are how you achieve engagement.” quote=”Extrinsic motivators get you compliance. But intrinsically motivating tasks are how you achieve engagement.” theme=”style6″]
Addendum for those who want to actually do something about this:
Now, the above paragraph was where I intended to end this polemic but I think it behooves me to give you, my readers, something more useful to go away with. Because if I have managed to get your blood flowing it would be a waste to give you nowhere to focus your energies. So, how exactly do we make work meaningful?
This is a complex topic but we can begin by simply measuring it. They do say that what gets measured gets done, after all. To measure meaningfulness you need to ask only three questions:
On a scale of one to five, with one being not at all and five being very much…
- At any given moment, can you tell whether the work you’re doing is good or bad?
- At any given moment, can you perceive how what you do makes a difference to the larger system in which you work?
- Right now, do you personally feel that what you do makes a positive difference to someone outside of your place of work?
A high score on these measures indicates deeply meaningful work. A low score should be cause for concern. So start measuring it. If the score is low, make changes and measure again. And, while you’re at it, apply this test to yourself. It might actually save your life.http://openforideas.org/blog/2017/03/29/how-to-be-less-optimal/https://i0.wp.com/openforideas.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/heart.jpg?fit=1024%2C576https://i0.wp.com/openforideas.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/heart.jpg?resize=150%2C150Diversity & Divergencyants,cats,extrinsic,humanity,individuality,intrinsic,motivation,obedience,play,selfless,selflish,teams,workplace