I have a bookshelf bulging with books on various aspects of cause and commerce, but, if truth be told, quite a few have been skimmed but not read. Such was not the case when I received an advanced copy of Bea Boccalandro’s new book “Do Good At Work: How Simple Acts of Social Purpose Drive Success and Wellbeing.”
Written in a light, humorous style and dotted with pen and ink illustrations by the author, “Do Good At Work” is an easy read that offers terrific, very practical advice on how to make your work life more meaningful. Fresh from consuming this volume in two days, I reached out to Bea, a consultant specializing in workplace purpose, with some questions.
The concept of job purposing is at the heart of “Do Good At Work.” What is it?
Bea Boccalandro: Job purposing is when a clerk purchases supplies from a minority-owned business. It’s when a mail carrier who does not have a package to deliver rings a doorbell anyway — in order to offer a lonely widower a social call (socially distanced these days, of course). It’s when a CEO institutes a policy that the highest-paid executive cannot make more than 50 times the pay of the lowest-paid employee. In other words, job purposing is defined as making a meaningful contribution to others or a societal cause as part of the work experience.
Everyone who has ever taken Psych 101 is familiar with Maslow’s pyramidal hierarchy of needs. Using that concept to look at work, you place “Social Purpose” above “Pay and Perks” and “Passion, People and Progress.” What do you mean by social purpose?
Bea Boccalandro: Social purpose is defined as “pursuing meaningful contributions to others or to a societal cause.” Psychologists call it “eudaimonic purpose.” But because I almost pulled a muscle trying to pronounce that word, I use a synonym: “social,” as in relating to societal good. Buying from groups systematically excluded from the market, cheering up a widower and reducing wage inequality are acts of social purpose. Attaining an end-of-year bonus, moving to a department with people you enjoy more or otherwise pursuing what’s on the bottom two levels of the Hierarchy of Motivation are self-oriented acts, what scientists call “hedonic” purpose.
And, yes, you’re right. The Hierarchy of Motivation draws heavily on Abraham Maslow’s theory of successively higher-order needs. As you know, this twentieth-century psychologist helped us understand that once we meet a need, we have to pursue a higher need to stay motivated. My model merely updates Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs per more recent research findings.
Do most people value social purpose as the ultimate motivator, as your Hierarchy of Motivation model suggests they should?
Bea Boccalandro: Yes and no. Yes in that we have no choice. Our response to social purpose is hard wired into us. Dozens of studies show that we work harder, longer and happier when we pursue social purpose. We can’t help it (unless we suffer from extreme antisocial personality disorder or sociopathy). Improved work performance and satisfaction is as automated a response to social purpose as better cardiovascular health is to exercise. So, yes, our physiology values social purpose as the ultimate motivator.
Nevertheless, it’s also true that consciously most of us consider hedonic purpose, not social purpose, the most effective motivator. We have been socialized — via our educational, performance evaluation and other reward systems — that pay, perks and promotions are the best motivators. As a result, many of us believe we are climbing toward higher fulfillment with each raise when, in reality, we’re spinning in circles at the bottom rung of life’s rewards. Sadly, this contributes to the job dissatisfaction that afflicts the majority of us as modern workers.
Does job purposing have to come down to employees as a company policy from the C-suite?
Bea Boccalandro: While many forward-thinking corporate leaders promote job purposing, we don’t have to count on this. Anybody can job purpose their own job. Whatever level of authority we have in our jobs, we can use it for good. We each have the ability to sit down for dinner on Friday proud that our workweek mattered.
You’ve worked with numerous organizations over the years and seen some inspiring examples of job purposing. Please share a few examples that have inspired you.
Bea Boccalandro: My book, Do Good At Work, has over 100 examples drawn from workers from around the world and each one awes me in some way. Some are striking for their simplicity. For example, a line worker at a manufacturing plant adopted a no-racism policy in his conversations. If a coworker belittles Chinese workers or any other group, he says, “I don’t want to be part of conversations that put groups of people down.” If this doesn’t stop the racist comments, he simply leaves the conversation. The universality of this job purposing is powerful.
Other examples of job purposing impress me because of their audacity. Take the job purposing Alberto Vollmer, co-owner of the Santa Teresa rum distillery in Venezuela. Vollmer offered the gang that robbed his business and almost killed an employee an alternative to jail time. They could work at Santa Teresa and repay the damage they caused. The gang members chose employment. This started Santa Teresa on a job-purposing journey that, seventeen years later, has resulted in a comprehensive rehabilitation and jobs program. Santa Teresa now offers at-risk and incarcerated youth counseling, formal education, rugby, job apprenticeships and seemingly anything else they need to secure gainful employment at Santa Teresa or elsewhere. In other words, one of the world’s top-ten rum producers doubles as a workforce development center that has helped tens of thousands of underprivileged youth become legally employed. That’s bold job purposing!
Finally, what advice would you give to someone who feels in a rut and doesn’t know how to start building more meaning into their work life?
Bea Boccalandro: If we struggle to identify feasible job purposing ideas, we shouldn’t worry. There’s nothing wrong with us. Well, there actually is, but it’s the same thing that’s wrong with every person on earth. Allow me to explain with a story of a woman in a gorilla costume.
Two research psychologists, Daniel J. Simons and Christopher F. Chabris, showed ordinary people a forty-second video of individuals clad in either black or white passing basketballs to each other. They asked viewers to count the number of times the players in white passed the ball. During the video, a woman in a gorilla suit pranced onto center court, beat her chest a few times and pranced off. After the video, 46 percent of viewers had no recollection of the gorilla.
Almost all of us (90 percent) think we would not miss the gorilla, yet the above experiment suggests about half of us are wrong. Even if we’re in the attentive minority who notice the gorilla, the study’s conclusion applies to us: We miss obvious things all around us all the time. If not large furry creatures, then something else. We pull into the driveway having no memory of getting off the freeway, don’t notice our spouse’s new haircut or otherwise miss the obvious. Failing to perceive things that fall outside the focus of our thoughts is a universal phenomenon that scientists call “inattentional blindness.” We should be grateful we have it. Without this filtering system, the millions of colors, shapes, sounds, words and sensations that assault us every second would fry our brains.
Inattentional blindness might be necessary, but it’s also the reason we miss job-purposing opportunities. At our task-oriented workplaces, our heads are down as we update a plan, fill out paperwork or stock inventory, for example. We aren’t looking for opportunities to help others or serve a charitable cause. Thankfully, there’s a simple fix. When researchers redirect us to look for the gorilla, virtually all of us see it. If we shift a small portion of our attention every day toward opportunities to contribute, we will see them. For example, we can set a reminder on our smartphone or computer at one arbitrary time during every workday for four weeks. At, say, 11:21 a.m. or 4:10 p.m. (If we can’t easily interrupt our work for five minutes, we can set the reminder for a time outside of work hours but respond to the questions below in relation to our time at work.) Put these questions in the reminder:
- How is the last person I interacted with doing? What might they be thinking or feeling? How might I contribute to this individual’s wellbeing?
- Can I complete the task I’m doing (or last did) in a manner that is more charitable, equitable, environmentally sustainable or otherwise social-purpose oriented?
That’s it! It might take several weeks, but the above exercise will almost certainly generate feasible ways to job purpose and thus ignite a sense of purpose at work. This, in turn, will help us become more energized and happier at work.
The bottom line is, when our work doesn’t improve the world, it’s time to improve our work!
Originally published on Forbes.com