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The complicated search for 'meaning' in corporate world

EACH morning, when this year's crop of college graduates try their luck at job markets, those of us already secure in employment are rushing to work, braving the elements, noise and crowds in rush hour traffic.

All appear to be busy.

One advantage of staying busy is that it spares us the pain of reflecting on the meaning of a job.

For many a job is justified by one thing only: remuneration.

Apparently, corporations view this tie as superficial.

According to Gurnek Bains in "Meaning, Inc: The Blueprint for Business Success in the 21st Century," companies worldwide are finding that workers are not fully engaged in their duties.

Declining morale, lower efficiency, burnout, many distractions and lack of advancement make work seem like a grind.

The book claims only 20 percent of Americans reported being "enthusiastic" about their jobs.

If that figure is true, that is fairly high. I don't think I could find so many enthusiasts around me, even among those in professions generally believed to be conducive to feelings of satisfaction and pride.

An incident I heard recently from my wife illustrated this fully.

One medical expert was recently invited to give a lecture at the hospital where my wife works. The doctor opened the lecture by saying: I have just saved a man.

He explained that while taking a taxi to the hospital, he chatted with the driver, and learned the driver's son wants to study medicine.

Powerful corporations

The doctor then explained the disadvantages associated with the profession: long learning process, long and irregular working hours, liability to lawsuits, stress, relatively low pay, and so on. At the end of the trip he had convinced the driver that medicine was not a good profession.

It is hard for a medical practitioner to maintain his professional pride against perpetual fear of law suits, punishment, or even physical assaults.

The introduction of market incentives should be responsible for this situation.

Bains writes that employees want their work to be significant and to make a contribution to society. That statement is probably too vague in the corporate context, where every process is driven by the mandate to turn a good profit.

Ironically, the "meaning" question is brought up by the corporate stakeholders, not the employees.

According to the book, two-thirds of the world's largest financial entities are corporations - as opposed to nations.

We still have schools, universities, hospitals, and governments, but they increasingly function like corporations, or at the behest of corporations.

These big corporations are exercising effective controls over the fate of the nation, as well as the fate of its employees, through their products or by-products.

Take Hangzhou Bay as an example. According to a CCTV report on July 7, the bay is now a repository of waste that is discharged from more than 200 chemical plants that have sprung up along the coast.

Sometimes the waste is discharged secretly into rivers that flow into the bay, and sometimes it is openly poured into the sea. The pollutants have decimated aquatic life that once provided a decent livelihood for local fishermen.

How do we convince the employees of these chemical plants that their labor is serving a greater good?

Bains writes that making your employees' work more meaningful can reinvigorate their engagement, improve profits, productivity and public relations.

"Meaning can and will give business a genuine competitive edge," the book claims. Injecting meaning into the daily grind gives employees a sense of purpose.

Companies on this positive path typically exhibit these characteristics:

They offer stretch goals in pursuit of their core objectives.

They innovate, deliver employee benefits and make people feel special.

They allow people to be individuals and to build their own talents.

They critically evaluate each person's work and contribution to group efforts.

They are concerned about wider issues.

They forgo short-term goals that conflict with their deeper purpose.

They live their stated ideals.

According to the book, a gasoline company can no longer just provide fuel; it must be a key participant in environmental and conservation issues.

McDonald's had to change its operations after bad publicity about the impact of fast-food on health.

In other words, these companies must look beyond money in search of meaning.

Money can motivate and inspire, but only in a limited way.

"While many believe that earning more money will improve the quality of their life, the reality is that once people in the US and the UK earn over the threshold of 12,000 pounds (US$25,000), there is virtually no relationship between their salary and their happiness," the book observes.

This is because people want to derive a sense of belonging and meaning from their jobs that traditionally came from family ties, religions and community lives.

That's quite a challenge for corporate leaders.

Work-life balance

Injecting meaning into the life of workers at the work place is the fondest hope of senior executives, but, unfortunately, genuine meaning can be elusive within the confines of the corporate world dominated by machines, assembly lines, and waste discharge conduits.

More pertinent is Aldous Huxley's depiction of the plight of industrial age labor.

"Today every efficient office, every up-to-date factory is a panoptic prison, in which the worker suffers (more or less, according to the character of the warders and the degree of his native sensibility) from the consciousness of being inside a machine," Huxley wrote.

He wrote that modern man is well fed, well clad, satisfied sexually, yet without self, whose happiness today consists in "having fun," and the fun lies in the satisfaction of consuming commodities.

The groping for meaning by corporate leaders is just another attempt at "concentration of power in the hands of a few experts and the regimentation of the masses."

This view was shared by Eric Fromm, who wrote in his "The Art of Loving" that "Modern man has transformed himself into a commodity ... Life has no goal except the one to move, no principle except the one of fair exchange, no satisfaction except the one to consume."

In seeking true meaning from business we might consider Zhang Jian (1853-1926), Confucian scholar, educator, political activist, and one of the earliest modern entrepreneurs who launched businesses as a means of saving and strengthening China from the threat of Western imperialists.

Given the nature of corporations today, I think the only meaningful way for employees to create an authentic sense of meaning is to strike a balance between work and life, resist the tyranny of the job, refuse to respond to the call of "success," and spend more time reinvigorating the ties that once inspired us: families, religion, and nature.


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