Mary Parker Follett, often called “the prophet of management,” was wrong about one thing. Most of us still split our time between “working” and “providing service” to our communities and society. We do not see how our day-to-day work provides a great service to the world.
In 1925, Follett said “it used to be that a man made money for himself, a purely selfish conception, in the daytime,” and balanced it by providing service to the community outside of work. Or he might spend time at work focused on making money, and later spend some of that money in ways useful to the community.
She stated, “The more wholesome idea, which we have now, is that our work itself is to be our greatest service to the community.”
Follett was right that this is the more wholesome idea, but she was wrong about it being the way things are for most of us.
Do you live two lives?
Why do you work? Is it simply to make money? Is your work your greatest service to your community and society?
A short parable
Walking in the woods one day, a boy came upon three workers at a construction site. The first worker was dirty, sweaty, and looked tired. The boy asked the first worker, “What are you doing?” The worker replied, “I’m nailing boards.”
The second worker was dirty, sweaty, and had an unhappy expression on his face. The boy asked the second worker, “What are you doing?” The second worker replied, “I’m building a house.”
The third worker was also dirty and sweaty, but was smiling. He worked as hard as the other two, but work seemed to come easier for him. The boy asked the third worker, “What are you doing?” The worker replied, “I’m building a home for a family.”
As this parable points out, sometimes the value of your work is a matter of perspective. When you think about your work from the perspective of those who will use or benefit from your services, work itself becomes easier and more fulfilling.
Discover what service your work provides by uncovering its purpose
These six questions can help you uncover the purpose of your work. Ask yourself:
- What purpose do my activities serve?
- What is the value of my activities?
- How do my activities support a larger effort?”
- What will be the end-result of my work?
- Who will experience the result of my work?
- How will they be affect by what I accomplish?
Remember to be clear about “why” you are doing something, not just “what” you are doing.”
I really like these questions and this approach to work. It gets us pondering the bigger issues of what we’re doing and if we don’t like the answers we have gives us a way to potentially change whAt we do. We spend such a large part of our life working that we should make sure that we’re happy with what we’re building, growing and a part of.
Hi Tim, Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to share your thoughts on how my post affected you. I’m glad that you connected with the core message of my post. When you think of it, most adults spend at least half of their waking hours at work. I believe we have a right and a responsibility to bring our whole selves to work and to feel good about who we are.
Over the next few weeks, my blog is going to be devoted to looking more closely at purpose as well as some other core concepts that create workplaces where people can be fully present. Hope you’ll visit again.
Great post! I work for an academic medical center, and one of my particular responsibilities is to educate our resident physicians in community-based advocacy. In determining how activities support a larger effort, one of the best parts of our curriculum is getting them out of the hospital and into the offices of various service providers in the community. Our residents come back with a greater appreciation of their work and a realization that they really do have an impact on the community beyond the walls of a hospital or clinic.
Thanks again – this was a great jump start for the week.
Hi George, Thanks for sharing a great example of the power of purpose in action. Warm regards, Jesse
I love this post, especially the six questions. It drove me thinking a lot. Usually we work just wanna make a living or being working slaves, like the first two workers in your post. Sometimes, we think job is a way for self-satisfaction. In my case, when I am in a good mood, I will think I am interested in the research work, however, when I am in a bad mood, I will feel what I am doing is worthless and no one will care. I never think from the six questions. They are inspiring.
Hi Meng, Research has led to most of the advances of our civilization – a most noble purpose for one’s work. How will the research you are involved in benefit society? I hope the answers can help you next time you’re feeling bad. Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts. My best, Jesse
I really enjoyed this article! This is something I have been considering for a while. What do you think about the whole concept that people many people don’t feel the positive effects of their work because they are so disenfranchised from it? For example, because of specialization in almost every field, those in the manufacturing sector may not feel connected to the result of their work, but just the one, tiny part that they produce. For instance, I have a friend whose mother worked for twenty years bending tiny pieces of metal for some machine that she neve even saw. Do you think there is a way to help people feel more positive about their work? Or do you think the structure of how people work needs to change? Or none of the above?
Glad to hear you resonated with the topic of my blog. You raise a very good point. Specialization does cause disenfranchisement when we lose connection with the end result of our efforts. One way around that is to help people see how they contribute to the end result and how important their efforts are. It’s sad that your friend’s mother never saw the machine she was building. You reminded me about a story I heard about a an who was moping the floor in a lab for the Apollo Moon project. As a tour group went by, a child came up to the man and asked him what he was doing. The man replied smiled and replied, “I’m putting a man on the moon.”
Do I think the structure of the way people work needs to change? Yes. Do I think that it is possible for people to feel connected to the end-result, even when they are only contributing a small piece, yes. But it’s not entirely up to the individual to make those connections. Leaders have a responsibility to build organizations where workers can feel valued.
What do you think, Margy? I’d love to know your opinion.
Once again thinking about your blog from my point of view. One of the things that I love about what I do is that I’ve always felt that my actions mattered, even more so now that I am working directly with families and kids. Purpose and value are inherent in what I do.
However, I notice that my colleagues are often feeling disenfranchised from their work with kids. The administration, the paperwork, their supervisors, all seem to be subverting the power of their work. I am wondering how I, as a colleague, can support them and try to help them see the value in what they do. I can’t change the administration…but point of view and personal experience are so important! Are some people just programmed to see the negative versus the positive?
I think some people do tend to look at the world as a cup half full and others look at it as a cup half empty. But my experience is that even people that tend to be more critical about things can become quite passionate when they connect their work with a significant purpose. They just need more help to get there. I think one of the thing that helps is to ask questions like the ones I listed and then to listen to their answers. Sometimes they can discover for themselves a cup that is more than half full.
I love the opportunity to have an ongoing conversation. I’m always happy to share my views, but I don’t want to come across as “the expert.” What do you think?