The Intuition Network, A Thinking Allowed Television Underwriter, presents the following transcript from the series Thinking Allowed, Conversations On the Leading Edge of Knowledge and Discovery, with Dr. Jeffrey Mishlove.

WHAT MAKES WORK MEANINGFUL? with DENNIS JAFFE, Ph.D. 

JEFFREY MISHLOVE, Ph.D.: Hello and welcome. Today we're going to examine the subject of finding meaning in the workplace. So many of us want to approach our work with a sense of commitment, a sense of passion. We'd like to find as much meaning in our work as we'd like to find in our lives, and yet statistics show that many, many people feel frustrated and unhappy at work. With me today is Dr. Dennis Jaffe, professor of psychology at the Saybrook Institute in San Francisco, and a past president of the Association for Humanistic Psychology. Dr. Jaffe is also the author of numerous books, including Healing from Within, From Burnout to Balance, and Take This Job and Love It. Welcome, Dennis. It's a pleasure to have you here.

DENNIS JAFFE, Ph.D.: It's great to be here.

MISHLOVE: You know, most of the classical literature on the world of work and the world of labor focuses in on the topic of alienation. The existentialists, the Marxists -- I mean, revolutions have been based on this notion that workers are alienated from their work. It's a major problem today, I would think.

JAFFE: Well, the modern form of alienation, and the modern word for it, is burnout. We have a lot of people who are de-energized, bored, apathetic, totally disconnected from their work. What I think is happening -- and some people have even suggested that there's a major shift in the whole way in which people work together -- is that people are seeing it's not inevitable that organizations be run in a way where one person has power, has all the fun, gives the orders, and then everybody else is passive, inert, dependent, and alienated or burned out -- that there's another way to run the organization where power is seen in a completely different way, and where the experience of being in the organization is very, very different for everybody.

MISHLOVE: In other words, what you're saying is there are other ways for workers to empower themselves besides engaging in Marxist revolution.

JAFFE: Right. Well, revolution was the old form of throwing off the bosses, and I think in a lot of studies of revolution the real difficulty came when people threw the owners out and then they had to run it themselves, and they found themselves getting into the same patterns of dominating each other and a kind of repressive use of power.

MISHLOVE: Because they hadn't really changed their basic methods of communication.

JAFFE: Well, the inner thing is somebody is in charge, and somebody is being told what to do.

MISHLOVE: What you're suggesting, I gather, then, is that for individuals to find meaning in their work, they have to, in effect, take charge of their situation somehow.

JAFFE: Well, it's ironic, but to use it as a starting point, a workplace where everybody is in charge -- I mean, it's an interesting concept, but it isn't really so fantastic when you look around at a lot of the kinds of things that happen in the workplace. You know what you do; you know where you fit in; you know kind of what the whole place is trying to achieve, and how things are organized; a and then pretty much you can be in a situation where you are in charge of figuring out how to do that. Whether you're a hotel clerk, or even nowadays working on assembly lines, you can be much more in charge of not only what you do, but also see yourself as contributing to the whole organization.

MISHLOVE: It sounds idealistic in some ways, and yet I would imagine that there are some drawbacks. I mean, look at the Reagan White House. We can't let everybody be in charge.

JAFFE: Well, that's an interesting example, because we joked a lot that right before the whole Contragate thing there had been a cover story in Fortune magazine -- Reagan the manager saying, "Well, my way of managing is to get good people and just cut them loose to do their best job." And then everybody's saying, "Well, here we have Oliver North," the Reagan manager par excellence." I think that what went wrong is that's one part of it, is empowering people, and I guess you have to say that in the Reagan White House there was a sense of empowerment, certainly in the National Security Council staff, but what there wasn't was a trust of other people and a trust of open communication, which is another part, I think, of the new style of management, where you're going to manage yourself. There's a concept that we call alignment, and that's where everybody knows what direction they're going. Using the White House example, people just did not really know how to fit in with each other's efforts, and there certainly wasn't an effort made to really fill people in, to get suggestions, to say, "Well, how can we do this better?" The new organization is what we call very richly entwined, because people have to speak to many, many more people in order to get their job done. That's another aspect of empowerment, is you really have to do a lot of checking in and maneuvering, as it were.

MISHLOVE: Dennis, I may be an unusual person in the sense that I'm self-employed, by and large, and I'm doing work that I've created for myself. Most people are not self-employed yet, I think. My sense is that many, many people are working in situations that are basically oppressive. You've got some son of a bitches out there running companies. What does a person do in that kind of situation? I mean, you can talk your head off; it may not help.

JAFFE: Well, there are a number of steps that a person can take, and the way we did the book was to go into organizations and find out. You're a person who has created your job outside of the organization. What's incredible is there are a lot of people inside organizations that have created their jobs, simply by getting away from the attitude, "Well, what can I do? That's the way they are. Everybody's like this. They don't let you do anything here," and all those kind of negative things that leave you feeling completely incapable of doing anything.

MISHLOVE: In other words, let's not start by assuming the worst.

JAFFE: You start by assuming, "Well, let me see what I can do," rather than, "There's nothing I can do." And then you find that a lot of the jobs in organizations are not ones that people are given, but ones that they create. There are a number of organizations which operate by having people find out and define a job for themselves that suits their own particular talent. There's a magazine company called New Hope Communications, where people literally define their own jobs, they decide what meetings they want to come to, they decide when they want to come in, and the president of the company says he's very amazed that people, when they select their own jobs, have incredibly high standards for themselves, and he feels as president that he has to go to people and say, "Don't take on so much. You don't have to work so hard."

MISHLOVE: It's called intrapreneuring, I understand.

JAFFE: Intrapreneuring is that sense of becoming a designer and a creator inside the company.

MISHLOVE: As opposed to entrepreneuring.

JAFFE: It's creating it for yourself.

MISHLOVE: The irony is, of course, that people who are entrepreneurs, or who own their own work, will happily put in sixty hours or more a week because of their passion, their commitment. You're suggesting that if they're given this opportunity within a company, or even if they're not given it, they can propose it, in effect.

JAFFE: They can take it, and I'm suggesting, even more radically, that organizations will get much more out of people when they offer them this option to be a creator, to be a participant -- whether you're a group of people on an assembly line sitting around saying, "Let's look at the process of production, and see how we can do it better." You have Toyota, where there are 37,000 employee suggestions for improving the product every year; and you have General Motors, which is more traditional in most of its plans, where they get very, very few suggestions, and of those suggestions very few of them are adopted. At Toyota, for example, if you make a suggestion, every one of those 37,000 suggestions, the employers will get back to the work team that suggested it and tell them either that they're going to do it, or if they're not going to do it, why not. So if you make a suggestion, even if it doesn't get adopted, you have the feeling of connection to what happens. That's an increasing response in companies.

MISHLOVE: Well, I think there's a tendency now -- people are hearing about the hundred best companies to work for, and people are rushing, and they're getting all kinds of applications. What do you do, though, if you're in another company that doesn't listen to its employees?

JAFFE: Well, we wrote the book kind of as a joke, to say, what happens if you work for one of the hundred worst companies? What I would say is that it's very exciting to work in one of these new style companies; that you can do a lot, no matter what your company is, to begin to create a little pocket of empowerment and creativity and excitement in any company. What I would say, for example, is that we have this image -- it's the old school -- that change comes from the top. The CEO comes in one day, he comes down from the mountain, he's been enlightened, and he says, "OK, here is the way we're going to run the company." The actual way, if you look at the great innovations in companies, you find that it didn't happen that way. Somebody in middle management, or somebody moving up, began to get new ideas, and he began to talk to other people, and his team or his division really stood out and exemplified, and then that kind of expanded out. The concept that I have of change in a company is that it starts anywhere and ripples out in all directions.

MISHLOVE: There's some interesting new research, I understand, about when people take risks in companies, and propose innovations, this sort of thing. What happens?

JAFFE: Well, the study is a study not just of big risks, but people that take risks and do courageous actions -- go against the grain, say something is wrong or something needs to be changed, or a policy isn't working out, and really bring bad news to a company. What would you think -- that most of those wouldn't work out? What do you think woudl happen to most people?

MISHLOVE: Well, my own guess is that if you bring bad news and therefore avoid a calamity, that you'll be rewarded.

JAFFE: Well, most people wouldn't think that, but in fact eighty percent of the risks and courageous actions were successful, in that the person felt that the company addressed the issue, and their own position in the company wasn't hurt. The twenty percent that didn't succeed were very interesting. They were ones where the action was basically a personal attack on another person in authority, and those are the kinds of risks when it's trying to remove a person or get somebody kicked out. Those are the kinds of risks that may backfire. But the people who did them -- it was very interesting -- were at first tremendously afraid. They didn't think the company would listen, they didn't think it would work. And what they reported is not just that the risk was successful, but the most important thing was that they felt a whole different sense of themselves. They reported a sense of deep inner satisfaction, a growing sense of self esteem. Their own sense of power grew, their energy increased, and they ended up, after having taken this risk, with a very, very deeply positive experience in their own careers. A lot of them said, "This was a turning point for me. I discovered my own power. I discovered that I really made a difference, and I went out and did a whole number of things to make a difference in the company."

MISHLOVE: What you're saying makes me think that there's a basic sense that you can take within a corporation of trusting human nature -- that everybody at the workplace, they all want to find meaning, they all want to communication, they'd all like to see it work, really, and if you go in with that attitude, people will respond. But the exception, I think, is if you've got a person in the business who is totally incompetent, or even criminal in their behavior, because of this natural optimism that people have, you're not going to be able to move against that person too well.

JAFFE: Well, the temptation, you see -- and you've painted a pretty extreme picture of somebody who's not just incompetent but bad, evil --

MISHLOVE: It happens from time to time.

JAFFE: What happens is people begin to adopt the strategy of the person that they're having difficulty with. So if that person is defensive and closed and angry, somehow we begin to mirror that. And that is precisely the kind of response that doesn't work. What I suggest to people, even with the most difficult supervisor or boss, is to begin to adopt an open strategy, to really try to keep the dialogue open, to look at the person and say, "This is not a bad person, this is not an evil person. This is a person who I simply haven't figured out, and I have to work harder to find out what they want and what makes them work, and also to make them aware of what I need." The other ally you have in that is usually if one person is giving you trouble, he's usually giving everybody else around him trouble as well, and you can begin in kind of a nonsubversive way to begin to bring other people together, and sometimes you can't say something one-to-one, but you can bring some people together and begin to open up a dialogue, or help a person act differently.

MISHLOVE: Let me approach the question of meaning with you from another point of view now, Dennis. I think a lot of people find that ultimate meaning in their life has to do with metaphysical, with spiritual issues, with creating something sacred, even in their lives. This aspect of meaning seems so far removed from the workplace. Is there any hope that this kind of sacredness in the workplace can ever happen?

JAFFE: Well, it's interesting. There's a study that was collected in the book New Rules, that's about looking at the new values and the new things that people are wanting from work, and what Yankelovich, who conducted the study, found --

MISHLOVE: The pollster.

JAFFE: Right. He polled many, many hundreds of people, and found that people were looking for sacred meaning and significance in their work. They were looking at what their company did, they were identifying with what the whole company did in the world, how the company treated people -- some of the positive things about the mission of the company. A lot of the companies that people work for do some very incredible things. I mean, a transportation company brings people all over the world; a hotel creates comfort for people. Apple Computer's Steve Jobs said, "What we're doing is not making a computer. We're in here to change the world." It's quite clear that people are willing to work for less and have more excitement working for Apple because they really believe in the meaning of what they're doing and what their product is achieving. Not just, "We're selling the best computer at the highest margins and making the most money, and therefore this is an exciting company." There's something about the meaning that they create that makes it more fun to work there, and makes people really choose that work environment.

MISHLOVE: That's certainly true for many vanguard industries and vanguard companies. But what about the steel mills? What about the places where they make ball bearings?

JAFFE: Well, the steel mills are very interesting. There's a number of steel mills that are being sold to the workers, and incredible things are happening even with the steel industry, which we would say is totally lost to foreign competition, when people really feel like it's their company and they get inspired with the fact of showing people that they can really make a go of it. At some steel mills and other kinds of companies -- I think there are a number of retail chains and other kinds of industries that you'd say are kind of in decline or in decay -- and when the employees buy them out, take over, or when somebody comes in with a new sense of vision, there's what I call a renewal process. Something that's in decline, when there's new meaning injected into it, there can be an incredible shift in a company that people would have written off before.

MISHLOVE: But you know, Dennis, many of the largest employers today in this country are manufacturing weapons, or they're manufacturing pesticides. They're doing things that seem to go against the grain of social value. At least many people would think so; others argue. Or manufacture cigarettes. How can you find meaning in that kind of environment? Aren't people somehow really selling their soul, in a way, to earn a dollar?

JAFFE: Well, I'm not going to take a moral stance, but I'm going to answer it in a different way. There are people that work for certain kinds of companies -- for example, one of my colleagues talked about seeing somebody for psychotherapy, and he was having all these illnesses, and he was burned out, and he just wasn't really doing very well at work. In the therapeutic process he began to discover that his issue was that his company was engaged in weapons work and he had a lot of difficulty with that, had a pacifist background, and basically he needed to change his job.

MISHLOVE: I know for myself I'd jump out of my skin if I were in that kind of company.

JAFFE: That's true. The other thing I see, though, in some defense companies and some kinds of industries, is that in some way, whether we agree with it, whatever our feelings about it, the people there are inspired in some way by the outcome. They see people feel good about working in a weapons company when they really identify with the role of peace. The same with people in the armed forces. I think they are incredibly dedicated when they see what they're doing as maintaining peace. There's a way in which it can become a vitalizing mission.

MISHLOVE: Well, we might agree or disagree, but I suppose in any industry it wouldn't exist if there weren't some kind of a perceived social need, and if there's a way in which those industries are really on track in terms of need -- if they're really providing peace, if the pesticide companies are really improving the quality of our life in some ways -- and people know and understand that. And if that's not happening, I guess you'd have to say it's up to the people in those industries to be vocal. Of course they may lose their jobs.

JAFFE: Or to make a choice about where they want to work. I think a lot of people have left industries and have made job changes to find a job where they feel comfortable, and really feel identified with what the work is doing. There are all kinds of ways that I see people taking control over their work. A lot of companies, for example, are what we euphemistically call downsizing, which means they're laying off a lot of people. It's very interesting to see that a lot of people that are laid off by a company begin to say, "What am I going to do with my life?" and they begin to find ways where they can be self-employed, they can do a different type of work, they work as contractors doing specialized work for numbers of different companies. It appears that one of the future waves in the workplace is going to be companies that employ mostly independent contractors, and people will say, "Well, I'm not going to really depend on one company. I'm going to work for a number of companies. I have this skill, this skill is marketable, and I'm going to keep control over my life where I can work here, work there, take time off, spend time with my family raising children, looking at other aspects of my life." The statistics are that the number of self-employed, independent people at work is increasing drastically.

MISHLOVE: Well, you raise an interesting point, because there is a question of lifestyle as a whole. When we look at our culture there are other social problems. We have a good deal of crime, we have drug problems, we have broken families, we have many people who just feel alienated in their lives. There's a whole new wave of nihilism amongst our young people, to a certain degree. How is it possible to have meaning in the workplace when so many people feel that there's no meaning to their lives as a whole, or they jump to some kind of rigid form of meaning?

JAFFE: Well, I have a funny response. I'm starting to meet -- and for the first time I feel like the older generation -- this younger generation. A lot of them talk about that they're aware of that, and it's almost like that's a developmental cycle. It used to be the career cycle was you go to school, you go to graduate school, you get a profession, then you work in that profession for fifty or sixty years until you retire and die very quickly. Now there's more of a kind of spiral path where people work for a while in a certain area; they often change careers. A lot of the people that I see in their thirties who are what I'd call very mercenary about their work begin to make a lot of money, they sell a company, and then they begin to say, "Well gee" -- every day I hear about somebody who says, "What I'm going to work for is world peace, or the Hunger Project," or some people I know have decided to work in foundations or for service organizations, saying, "Look, I have enough money to live on very, very well. Now what I want to do with my life at forty is service." A lot of people like me, who have been involved in social action for a long time, are now finding that we want to work more in the corporate world, and we begin to see things in the corporate world that maybe at other stages of our life we weren't willing to be open to or weren't interested in. And there's a sense of people cycling through maybe three or four careers, and I don't think any of these young people are going to be in that career in ten or twenty years.

MISHLOVE: Do you feel, Dennis -- you're a person who's written books like The Healer Within and books on meditation -- that in our culture, with its predominant materialistic, hedonistic, sensualistic orientation, that it's possible for people to find meaning within that kind of framework, or are they just seeking the next pleasure?

JAFFE: Well, it's funny. I think that we're in a very spiritual culture. I think that people at work, people that are doing things, in different ways are operating out of a deep sense of mission. We may have a lot of quarrel with some of the American mythology, but the American mythology is a sense of making the world better, improving progress, a number of things that we're now beginning to question. But what I see in the workplace is what I call nothing less than a very powerful spiritual movement towards making work meaningful, towards looking at the wider consequences and asking hard questions, even if initially people may not be quite sure how to act on the answers to those questions. I find that people are looking, in a funny way, for spiritual meaning and purpose out of their work, in a way that five, ten years ago even, we were willing to say, "Well, work is work, and meaning and spirituality is a personal quest." And it's a very powerful shift.

MISHLOVE: Dennis, let me shift a little bit. I've been trying to ask the toughest questions I can to you, and you've been very good at responding to questions that I would think are very difficult. You've thought them through, and obviously through your extensive experience working with companies you are in touch with these changes. Where do you see the future? What can we expect ten years from now?

JAFFE: Well, what I'm excited to see in the future is a new style of work relationships where people are working more in fairly small groups, fairly small organizations, even if they may be members of a larger conglomerate, where a whole group works on something, develops it, runs it, operates it --

MISHLOVE: Sort of like mom-and-pop family businesses within the corporation.

JAFFE: Right. Mom-and-pop all over the place -- decentralized, small organizations where people do a lot of jobs, there's a lot of changing and flexibility, and people feel a lot of connection not just with their own job but with what the whole organization does.

MISHLOVE: It sounds like what you're saying is if we get to that family quality within the workplace, people will really be caring about each other.

JAFFE: I'd like to see workplaces as new communities in every sense of the word -- people that care about each other, people that enjoy being together, that don't just feel forced together, and people that feel that they're doing something important together. So it's very much the sense of community, the sense of family, but the productivity and the power of being part of the collective that we call corporation, company.

MISHLOVE: You know, the way you're describing it does make me feel good inside. It makes me think that this notion of humanistic psychology, of which you're a leader, and which was given birth in our culture maybe twenty, twenty-five years ago or so, is really beginning to take root. When you get into the workplace, you're really dealing with the fabric of our life. Dennis Jaffe, thank you very much for being with me. It's a pleasure.

JAFFE: Well, thank you, Jeff. I'm really excited about getting a chance to talk about some of these ideas.

END 


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