Because I read this book on my meaning at work quest, I only read the sections on employees. Before summarizing those, let me present the three pyramids in their high-level forms.
Generic Employee Customer Investor Transformation Meaning
Meets Unrecognized Needs
(Creates Pride of Ownership)
(Creates Base Motivation)
Just as Ilene Philipson has observed in “Married to the Job,” Conley sees work as an opportunity for employees to be in a community and to grow. (Unlike Philipson, he does not see the dark side of that approach). Money is the necessary base level because “dissatisfaction with money grossly demotivates” as Peter Drucker is quoted (p. 53). Next, environmental factors have to be managed, such as employee-management relationships, comfort of the work space, or HR rules. However, as Fredrick Herzberg points out, that is not enough. “People are motivated, instead, by interesting work, challenge, and increased responsibility. These intrinsic factors answer people’s deep-seated need for growth and achievement” (p. 53).
Conley points out “while money may pay the bills, it doesn’t necessarily buy happiness” (p. 54; it would be interesting to get an example of money buying happiness – I would remove the “necessarily,” although Daniel has a good point about “buying happiness” at the lower levels of the pyramid):
- Real income increased 16% in the last 30 years
- Happiness has fallen from 36% to 29% (percentage of people who describe themselves “very happy”)
I am not quite clear how Martin Seligman’s observation fits here, who Conley references right after providing these statistics. Seligman argues that we’re changing from a money economy to a satisfaction economy. It looks to me that we’re getting the money but not the satisfaction. (For an excellent critique of Seligman’s work, please see Tim LeBon’s write-up. Bella DePaulo also takes issue with Seligman’s link between happiness and marriage in her book Singled Out.).
Money is the base of the employee pyramid. Conley suggests using a survey like “100 Best Companies to Work for” to monitor how a company’s climate survey compares to the remainder of the industry (p. 55). In addition to receiving information to compare the company’s stance with its peers, the survey is useful to get general trends, such as “the trend toward compensation benefits that address work/life balance” (p. 56). Ironically, Conley mentions the same perks that Ilene Philipson identified as the things that marry us to our job: creating a company campus that offers everything from dry cleaning to take-out food. Conley points out that employees in the US earn less GDP per hour worked – because we work so many more hours. He concludes that time off is one of the greatest benefits an employer can give. Conley focuses the discussion on unique benefit offerings from providing classes during rush hour to “quality of life” allowances. Interestingly, he never suggests a reduction in hours per week.
The middle part of the employee pyramid consists of recognition. Conley stresses that it is important to recognize employees in ways that are meaningful to them. He makes it the responsibility of his managers to figure out those ways and then implement them.
The top layer of the employee pyramid is the “Meaning” layer. Conley starts the chapter with a quote from Jim Collins who says, “it is impossible to have a great life unless it is a meaningful life” (p. 81). According to Collins, the centerpiece of a meaningful life is meaningful work, something that is “of intrinsic excellence that makes a contribution.” Conley follows up this quote with one from Maslow that again stresses that meaningful work needs to connect us to something larger. He points out that meaningful work results from finding one’s calling, instead of a job or even a career (p. 84).
Conley argues that meaning has become more important in the workplace for three reasons:
- We are interested in corporate transformation, which has to be based on personal transformation: using the “workplace as a playground for who [people] are and who they want to become” (p. 86).
- Work has replaced other social structures that used to give us a sense of belonging and meaning. With increasing social isolation in the rest of our lives, we look to work for a “sense of social connection” (p. 87).
- Successful companies have a “deep sense of mission.” When people are a part of a “heroic enterprise,” a company that works toward a greater cause than simply to make money, they are called upon to become heroes.
I would argue that only the second point is a reason for the importance of meaning in the workplace to employees. The other two are relevant for the company – why a company might try to force people to find meaning where there is none in a mistaken belief that the company’s success can be forced. While a company might think it is great – few would admit that they’re in the marketplace simply to make money – most companies, as Conley points out, have not reached that level.
For his outline of the components of meaning at the workplace, Conley heavily draws on Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning and Frankl’s argument that a reason for living (why) can draw a person through almost any circumstances (how). Based on Frankl, Conley proposes two sources of workplace meaning: Meaning at work and meaning in work (p. 89). Meaning at work is derived from the role an employer plays in a person’s life and how the company’s mission is integrated. Meaning in work is derived from the specific tasks a person has to perform on the job. The Hierarchy of Needs is satisfied when meaning at work is satisfied. By believing in the company one works for, even the work we do can become meaningful. An opposite “halo effect” is less likely: the meaningful day-to-day does not create a sense of being part of the larger picture.
Conley’s suggestions rely on tweaking the system rather than on transforming it. Ilene Philipson in her book Married to the Job has clearly outlined the dark-side of using the workplace as our source for meaning. I suspect that many of the companies Conley hails as great companies are in Philipson’s book as employers who divorced their employees (Philipson disguised the companies her clients worked for). Conley misses that, without a two-sided commitment that assures that employees cannot find themselves suddenly without a job, investing our meaning at work is dangerous to our health.
Conley’s employee hierarchy while it sounds good on paper is rather unconvincing. It skirts the underlying issue – the lack of meaning and community in our modern society – while providing solutions that essentially amount to window-dressing. Where a paradigm shift is necessary, Conley calls for printed mission cards. Meaning will remain illusive for most employees as long as companies remain the feudalistic, hierarchical behemoths they are now. A participatory democracy, which in the current economic environment would be suicide, would engage all employees in what is essential for the existence of meaning: Meaning making.
I think Conley is, like so many management consultants, missing the big pink elephant in the room: The way our economy is structured, most people will have jobs that are meaningless to them, that cannot lead to transformation and peak experiences for them. Reality is that our economy is built on perpetual growth, which requires more and more output on the one hand, enabled by increased productive and more compartmentalization of tasks, and more and more consumption on the other. Yet, we’re quickly reaching the limits of this model: There is no place to grow anymore. There are only so many gadgets people can have. At the same time, some people are waking up to the reality that money does not buy happiness, no matter how hard ads try to suggest otherwise. To claim that our jobs can become more meaningful simply by greater awareness – and buy-in – of the company’s mission statement is naïve. As long as employees remain pecks in the machine of growth, meaning and self-actualization will be limited to those at the top of the pyramid, I mean, hierarchy.