What makes work work?

Hot Chocolate Run for Safe Passage mugOn the first day of my new job, I reached into an office cab­i­net to take out a cof­fee mug and, to my sur­prise and delight, emerged with one that car­ried the logo for Northampton’s annual Hot Choco­late Run for Safe Passage.

As reg­u­lar read­ers know, I’d just left my beloved Northamp­ton – a west­ern Mass­a­chu­setts col­lege town where I’d hoped to put down roots – to take a job in Boston. I’d par­tic­i­pated in the Hot Choco­late Run sev­eral times myself, and pick­ing up this mug—on my very first day!—struck me as crazily serendip­i­tous, you might even say, a sign.

Over time, how­ever, I’ve come to see it as some­thing else: A reflec­tion of the fact that I’d landed in a sim­patico work­place culture.

The cof­fee mug inci­dent wasn’t the only clue. There was also the fact that, when I inter­viewed, the two future col­leagues with whom I had lunch were both Bud­dhist med­i­ta­tors. The fact that my depart­ment head took time off from work to cam­paign for her (and my) can­di­date before November’s elec­tion. The fact that I love my col­leagues’ dis­tinc­tive scarves and ear rings. I could go on.

Much advice about career tran­si­tions focuses on the what—on fig­ur­ing out what you want to do and then find­ing a place to do it. Do you want to take cases to trial? Do you want to write about food? Do you want to coun­sel women in cri­sis? Do you want to teach kids?

Yes, it’s impor­tant to have a sense of what you want to do—but I’ve found that it’s equally (or more) impor­tant to con­sider the where and the how.

I love to write. Whether I’m work­ing on a Plan B Nation post (like this one) or a speech about health care, I tend to lose myself in the process of putting words together—to enter that state of absorp­tion famously described as flow.

But that isn’t to say that I’d love any job that involves lots of writing—and speak­ing from expe­ri­ence, I can tell you that I would not. My cur­rent job isn’t the most pres­ti­gious I’ve ever had, and it’s not the most high-paying. It is, how­ever, over­all, one of the more satisfying.

So what accounts for job sat­is­fac­tion? Over time, I’ve come to iden­tify the qual­i­ties that mat­ter most to me, which inci­den­tally, can all be traced directly to work­place cul­ture.  Here are three examples:

1. Auton­omy

I’m far from alone here—lots of research sug­gests that auton­omy is crit­i­cal to on-the-job sat­is­fac­tion. (One inter­est­ing recent study found that high-level lead­ers have less stress than those lower on the cor­po­rate food chain, with researchers hypoth­e­siz­ing that this counter-intuitive result stems from the fact that the higher-ups have more con­trol over their lives.)

That said, I sus­pect auton­omy is more impor­tant to some of us than oth­ers. For me, it’s really impor­tant, and my most dif­fi­cult pro­fes­sional expe­ri­ences have been in work­place cul­tures where this cre­ates ten­sion. (“I feel like I’ve spent the year try­ing to keep you in the box, and you’ve spent the year try­ing to get out,” one super­vi­sor rue­fully remarked many years ago.) I could be writ­ing the coolest thing in the word, but if I’m being micro-managed, I’m not going to be happy.

2. Bal­ance

I don’t care how much I like what I’m doing: I don’t want to do it 110 hours a week. For that rea­son alone, I was never going to be happy in the sort of firm where I spent my first two years after law school.

It’s no secret that in the post-Recession world, work has got­ten more demand­ing, as lay­offs and increased “effi­cien­cies” cre­ate more work for those who remain. Still, while I roll my eyes at sug­ges­tions that employ­ees sim­ply need to do a bet­ter job set­ting lim­its, the issue of bal­ance is a real one. If you’re unhappy at work, is it because of what you’re doing or is it because of how much? And if you’re lucky enough to have some choice: How much is it worth to you to have time to ded­i­cate to other parts of your life? For me, it’s worth a lot.

3.  Mis­sion

A shared sense of larger mission–such as the one that infuses my work at Har­vard School of Pub­lic Health—is a through-line, enrich­ing good days and giv­ing mean­ing to the inevitable minor slumps. In my expe­ri­ence, it’s also more likely to lead to warm work­place friendships—which them­selves have been found to cor­re­late with job sat­is­fac­tion and suc­cess.

Even Cal New­port—an out­spo­ken critic of the “fol­low your pas­sion” school of decision-making—discourages peo­ple from tak­ing a job they think is use­less or actively bad for the world. His rea­son­ing is partly prag­matic: If you feel this way, you’re prob­a­bly going to have a hard time stick­ing around long enough to build up the sort of career cap­i­tal that you’ll need to move for­ward long-term.

* * *

In 2011, as the Great Reces­sion ground onward, I found myself scratch­ing my head over a New York Times arti­cle with the head­line “Maybe It’s Time for Plan C.”  The piece recounted the sto­ries of sev­eral peo­ple who traded steady jobs for entre­pre­neur­ial oppor­tu­ni­ties, launch­ing busi­nesses that included a Greek food stall, a wed­ding plan­ning busi­ness, and an online ceram­ics store. As New­port might have pre­dicted, it wasn’t long before they were over­whelmed. “I preach to my stu­dents to make time for them­selves, to treat their bod­ies as vital instru­ments. Now I’m lucky if I get that a few times a month,” said a mar­ket­ing pro­fes­sional turned Pilates instructor.

But here’s the curi­ous thing: Only one of the peo­ple inter­viewed regret­ted their deci­sions. While the piece didn’t offer any expla­na­tion, I have an idea. Even harder than work­ing for your­self is work­ing in an alien cul­ture. If that was their alter­na­tive, these choices make total sense.

What work­place cul­ture qual­i­ties are impor­tant to you? Please share your thoughts in the com­ments section.

© 2013, amy gut­man. All rights reserved.

9 thoughts on “What makes work work?

  1. Many years ago, a psy­chother­a­pist told me she believed I needed an “expres­sive” work envi­ron­ment. One she sug­gested I explore: teach­ing school at the K-12 level. I knew I didn’t want to work with chil­dren, and I dis­missed her sug­ges­tion. Now, I under­stand some­thing I didn’t get then. She was right.

    I took “expres­sive” to mean some­thing like “artis­tic” or “cre­ative.” What I under­stand it to mean now is that I like to say what I actu­ally think and feel and I like to be around other peo­ple who say what they actu­ally think and feel. I also like open, non-formal body lan­guage. That’s why restau­rants, gyms, retail, self-employment as a coach, and work­ing on very unstruc­tured cre­ative teams all worked — even if I was broke or bored with the con­tent or not intel­lec­tu­ally chal­lenged. It’s why I enjoy spend­ing time in the com­pany of ani­mals. It’s also why not a sin­gle “pro­fes­sional” office set­ting has ever worked for long, no mat­ter how inter­est­ing the con­tent.
    Bar­bara Saun­ders recently posted…Writ­ers: Rules of Thumb Are Meant to Be BrokenMy Profile

    • What a won­der­ful com­ment! Many thanks for shar­ing your reflec­tions — I so appre­ci­ate (and iden­tify with) that notion of com­ing to a new under­stand­ing of what offers a foun­da­tion for a sat­is­fy­ing work life (in this case, your evolv­ing under­stand­ing of the con­cept of “expressive.”)

  2. Amy:
    I for­got to men­tion this in my LinkedIn com­ment so thought to send it here.

    This start-up http://www.thegoodjobs.com/ con­nects job seek­ers to com­pa­nies via work cul­ture attrib­utes. Com­pa­nies develop a work

    I am relieved to have found Plan B and your blog.
    Con­grats on land­ing. I hope mine comes soon, too!

  3. Thank you, Alle­gra! And yes, shared val­ues & mutual respect are so so important–as are shared inter­ests and con­cerns. Despite hav­ing no for­mal back­ground in pub­lic health, I’m struck by how many folks at HSPH feel like “my peo­ple.“
    amy gut­man recently posted…What makes work work?My Profile

  4. Amy: what a won­der­ful post about cul­ture that fits. It’s awe­some when there is fit. Shared val­ues and respect go a long way to allow­ing peo­ple to have hon­est con­ver­sa­tions about tasks when deci­sions are being made and peo­ple have dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives. (And often teams are assem­bled for just those pur­poses — peo­ple with dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives which is often accom­pa­nied by dif­fer­ent EI lev­els which is not so fun for peo­ple who have high EI.) For a long time I’ve thought that good man­agers and work envi­ron­ments were like uni­corns — I heard they existed, but I never saw one. And then I’ve seen a few places and met a few peo­ple who prove to me that it’s pos­si­ble to have a pos­i­tive work envi­ron­ment and pos­i­tive man­agers. No one or no place is per­fect — that’s never the issue; the issue is pos­i­tive inten­tion and then the com­mit­ment to respect­ful hon­est con­ver­sa­tion. My work now is almost 100% with estab­lish­ing cul­tures of inno­va­tion — some­thing that requires hon­est con­ver­sa­tion. Tech­ni­cal skills are required to get in the door, but assum­ing peo­ple have the skills, 90% of the dif­fer­ence between results is the work­place cul­ture and EI of the peo­ple in it. (A famous study by Daniel Gole­man con­firms this 90% dif­fer­ence.) Some peo­ple get it and accept it; oth­ers I’ve seen fight it. In the end the dom­i­nant cul­ture will deter­mine how uni­ver­sal val­ues (like trust, respect, etc.) are imple­mented. So glad you have a good fit — HIGH TIME!
    Alle­gra Jor­dan recently posted…The Per­fect Sucker PunchMy Profile

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