Give me the work that suits me, and I’ll never have to work again. This wisdom of Confucius appears to be reserved for relatively few people. The figures vary worldwide, but if a third of the people would feel more involved in their work, then you are close to what is common in business. Many people are ‘detached’ or have ‘dropped out’. They still perform their work neatly from nine to five, but where has the soul gone? Recently, I was in hospital again for a while. There I tasted the difference between ‘just doing your job’ and ‘working with heart and soul’. What a gift to experience people who dare to be fully human in the workplace.
The hospital is a familiar place for me. Although I am happy and grateful for all the expert help and dedication, it is not the place where I immediately always feel the best. You are often a bit vulnerable in your bed and you are dependent on others. For those who know me a little, they know that something like that is often a little ordeal for me. It is therefore a relief when at such moments someone appears at your bedside who does not just do his or her job but makes every effort to help you move forward. Someone who shakes up your pillow unsolicited or gets you something nice for you to drink, “because I see that you need it”. I recently met such a nurse at my bedside. He came from the hospitality industry and had lost his job there. He then retrained as a nurse, and he does his work with all his soul and bliss. A natural talent with a will to learn. He let me experience that it’s about who you are, and that what you’ve learned is of less importance. He completely dedicated himself to master his new profession. The golden key to his success was his empathy, warmth and love for his fellow man. That’s an aspect that you can put into any profession. In that respect, it doesn’t really matter what you do, but especially how you do it.
Sometimes I wonder what the world would look like if all people were doing something from their hearts. The work is then no longer about a series of hours of your life that you exchange for an income for which you ‘rent out’ yourself. Work then becomes a part of your life, of life itself, of the why you walk around here on earth. In that respect, it is quite unusual that we talk about the right “work/life” balance in the work. What if work becomes ‘life’ again?
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“If you don’t sing your song, who will do it?”
Years ago, during a lecture, I met the Canadian pianist, Michael Jones. Music was his soul and joy from childhood. A pianist prefers to sit behind the piano, not behind a screen. Nevertheless, he worked in business as a trainer/consultant for much of his life. Music became his hobby, something for outside of work. Until the moment when he sought some relaxation behind the grand piano in the lobby of his hotel after a training session. An older man listened to his play with emotion and walked up to him asking what his profession was. “I’m a consultant,” Michael replied. The man refused to believe that Michael was telling the truth. He just couldn’t understand how it’s possible not to share so much talent with the world. “If you don’t sing your song, who will do it?” the man asked Michael, who was touched deep into his heart with this question. Not long after, Michael was able to reinvent his work from the inside out as a pianist/consultant, by bringing people from business, politics, and religion all over the world into a dialogue with each other around themes that really matter.
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It requires a healthy dose of courage to dare to be fully yourself. I know a renowned doctor who confided in me that he has also experienced the ‘other side’ of ‘being a doctor’ from his own serious health problems. He became a doctor from a genuine inner motivation to really help people. As a doctor, he wants to treat others the way he wants to deal with himself. Unfortunately, this is not always common in the academic hospital for which he works. Many doctors treat themselves differently than their patients. For example, if they get cancer themselves, they often go outside of existing protocols, to try things that are not normally allowed. Despite the fact that this doctor is naturally close to himself, he still sometimes loses himself in the system of the hospital. It is not easy as a doctor to truly remain yourself while working and acting in an environment where it is full of rules, regulations, and habits, despite the knowledge that it is often questionable whether they will always help the patient. You will encounter these challenges in any professional environment. Whether it concerns the relationship employee of a bank who, in the balance of purity and strict rules, must decide to grant credit to an independent entrepreneur or the insurance specialist who tries to make a human trade-off between the standard procedures and want to help the customer as well as possible.
Of course, organizations and clients also play an important role in whether or not to stimulate a culture in which people can completely take themselves to work. I always like to look at organizations that have learned to develop habits and methods for themselves that promote “being human” in the workplace. One of the people who has done a lot of research into these kinds of practical examples is Frederic Laloux, a former McKinsey Associate Principal and author of the book “Reinventing Organizations“.
‘Being human’ in the workplace
In his book, Laloux mentions countless practical means and methods to create safe and open working environments in which people are given the space to follow their “soul”. Where all people have an equal human value, starting from the good in man, unless otherwise shown. They are organizations that have learned to understand that there is no one way to make an organization function properly. Human work, the degree to which man is connected to himself and his fellow man, makes the difference between being successful or not. Each organization can give color to this in its own way. For example, the outdoor sports giant Patagonia is home to a development centre in its head office for children of employees between the ages of a few months and five. They see the laughter and chatter of children as an added value that makes employees think of work more as a part of life. It is not uncommon for a mother to breastfeed her child during a meeting. According to Patagonia, employees will see each other more as just colleagues, namely as ‘people’ and that benefits the mutual relationships. The more we show ourselves as full human beings, with all the pluses and minuses, the more authenticity in the workplace, the more creativity is created. People push themselves and are more likely to walk off the beaten track and see opportunities where people don’t normally look. This requires overcoming a lot of learned knowledge and beliefs, within and outside ourselves. Usually we tend to choose ‘the known’, the ‘certain’, the ‘familiar’, but in a world that is becoming increasingly complex and where we often feel ‘forced’ by regulation, protocols and standardisation to say no, there is a great need for enthusiastic people who have the guts to not only know and follow the guidelines, but also to remain pure and authentic in their own feelings. In reality there are, with a little rethinking and thinking out of the box, often possibilities where the majority of humanity does not see them. In that respect, the younger generation also offers a lot of hope.
In my job, I get to work regularly with trainees. I often admire their professional soul. There is a new generation that looks at everything from a very different perspective. Where possible, I give them all the space they need to apply their own ideas and thoughts in practice. That also requires patience and confidence in myself. Because of my long experience, I am sometimes inclined to think quickly about what will or will not work. Still, it is good to give chance and to look, think and act differently. Failure is also allowed. If it doesn’t work out now, maybe it will in six months’ time. Of course, I ask them why they see their solution working in practice. I also ask what they need to make it practical and why they choose the proposed approach.
The great challenges of the 21st century require us to reinvent ourselves as human beings and organizations. It will only succeed if we are open to the new, the ‘unknown’. The philosopher Kierkegaard was right: “Those who take risks lose the ground under their feet for a while, but the one who is not at-risk risks losing his life.”
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