At the start of Office Space, the 1999 cult hit about a disenfranchised office drone, the main character Peter talks to a therapist about his working life.
Peter: So I was sitting in my cubicle today, and I realized, ever since I started working, every single day of my life has been worse than the day before it. So that means that every single day that you see me, that's on the worst day of my life.
Dr. Swanson: What about today? Is today the worst day of your life?
Dr. Swanson: Wow, that's messed up.
This despondent realisation kickstarts Peter on a journey to rediscover what he really enjoys in life. Office life is certainly not for him. Without spoiling it too much, Peter embarks on some extremely risky behaviour that thankfully pays off and sees him with a lot more money - and therefore freedom - than before.
Not all of us are in a position to do what Peter does. The responsibilities of life mean we often have to take jobs for the simple fact that we can get paid. Following our dreams, passions and whims is fun to dream about, but it’s simply unrealistic for most folk, despite what internet business gurus say in their $99 courses and ebooks.
You can't force people to enjoy work
If someone doesn’t want to be at work, there's not much you can do to change it. Even if they're compensated nicely with money, benefits and a pleasant environment.
This scenario happens in all kinds of organisations. In the 2019 football season, before Manchester United’s home game against Chelsea - an important game for both teams, fighting for Champions League qualification - superstar winger Anthony Martial was spotted by fans standing around doing absolutely nothing. His teammates were running around, stretching, passing and helping each other, as you’re supposed to do before kick-off. He looked like he'd rather be at home watching it on TV.
Can you imagine being paid hundreds of thousands of pounds per week for playing a game a few times per month, and STILL half-arsing it? Some say he played well until signing a new 5-year mega-money deal, and he gave up after realising his job wasn't on the line any more.
All that’s clear from this is that money doesn’t create passion. Something bigger needs to drive us, whatever the job.
"It's not that I'm lazy, Bob. It's that I just don't care." - Peter Gibbons
Follow your passion and the enjoyment will come… right?
Cal Newport (who I’ve quoted before for his thoughts on Deep Work) thinks that 'follow your passion' is awful advice. Instead, he reckons you should become ’so good they can’t ignore you’ - skilled, unique, and useful - which opens up the doors we need to find a career that’s best for us.
Cal's theory is that working right is better than finding the right work. Most of us in most of our jobs, he argues, can create the right conditions for our autonomy, competence and capacity to flourish.
The passion mindset focuses on finding out what the world can offer you. The craftsman mindset focuses on discovering what you can offer the world, and is a much more measurable concept that you have ultimate control over.
"It asks you to leave behind self-centered concerns about whether your job is ‘just right,’ and instead put your head down and plug away at getting really damn good. No one owes you a great career, it argues; you need to earn it—and the process won’t be easy." - Cal Newport
So - on a personal level, this is likely to lead us into a more rewarding career, by opening up new opportunities as we become more useful.
And businesses that want their employees to be more passionate need to do some self-reflecting, too.
Values and culture
Michael Skapinker, writing in the Financial Times, muses on the reasons why employees stay with companies for a long time. Citing a new research paper by Stanford University, he shows that there are two factors affecting them. The first is company values, which the researchers defined as “deeply held and enduring beliefs about what is desirable and appropriate”.
"Our values don’t change much and if we feel the organisation has similar ones, it “leads to greater attachment, heightened motivation, stronger commitment, and higher productivity”. People who feel their values match those of the organisation tend to stay."
The second was cultural fit. As an example, people who communicated in positive and upbeat tones don’t tend to get on with negative, cynical ones. You need to feel part of a similar group of people to enjoy your job and want to stay there.
Values might be universal, Skapinker says, but personality types and communication styles are not:
"If you have a sufficiently different background from the people who set the cultural rules, you may have difficulty adapting to them. If you are different neurologically, literal-minded, for example, where others are oblique, you may struggle too, however much you have to contribute."
So if forcing people together can’t guarantee them caring about their work, what can be done?
Create a culture that people enjoy working in
At the top of every business plan, there’s a set of values. These are the ideals, overarching goals, and moral behaviours that the company is supposed to have that underpin everything it does.
Obviously making money is one of the core aims, but any business worth its salt has something it’s trying to change in their environment, community or society. And those aims need to be at the front of each employee’s mind when they’re working, otherwise they’ll likely lose motivation.
In How To Have A Good Day: The Essential Toolkit For A Productive Day At Work And Beyond, Caroline Webb explores the science behind having something more than money to work towards:
"Scientists have found that we’re more likely to achieve a challenging goal if we’ve decided for ourselves why it’s worth succeeding. Or to use psychological terminology: intrinsic motivation - where we’re doing things because they feel personally meaningful or satisfying - tends to lead to higher performance than the kind of extrinsic motivation that comes from seeking to meet other people’s expectations. The upshot? Not everything on our to-do list can be an act of personal passion. But the science tells us that we’re more likely to get something done if we take a moment to think about why it matters to us personally."
If workers can be more connected to the goal of the company, they’re more likely to do the job better.
I think it’s possible to create a culture where we admit we wouldn’t do the job for free, but don’t wake up dreading the day ahead either. There are a few obvious things companies can implement to make staff care more, other than money:
- Only hire those that care about the company mission and share its values.
- Treat everyone with respect.
- Have proper flexible working policies.
- Encourage personal development.
- Have sensible absence policies.
- Keep things simple.
- Learn from your mistakes and evolve the company culture over time.
And hopefully, with these in place, your employees will have something to be passionate about as well as the payslip at the end of each month.