Vocation: The Holy Grail of Corporate America

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Five hundred billion dollars. That’s how much economists estimate the US economy loses every year due to employee disengagement.

A recent Gallup poll showed that 70% of Americans are disengaged from their work – either simply punching in and punching out each day, or actually working to sabotage the company they work for.

Globally it’s worse: recently Harvard Business Review noted that 80% of the global workforce is disengaged – 10% worse than America. And the numbers aren’t getting better. Back in 2007-2008, the Global Workforce Survey conducted by Towers Perrin (now Towers Watson) polled 90,000 workers in 18 countries. Five years ago, 79% were disengaged worldwide. That’s one percentage point better, showing the world has lost ground in the past 5 years.

Imagine a global economy of Dilberts, wandering in a forest of cubicle boredom– and a sea of managers doing little to stem the tide of corporate ennui. If images of The Office are popping into your head (without the entertaining antics of Michael Scott), you wouldn’t be far from the truth.

But why hasn’t this question garnered more of our attention?  Employee disengagement costs not only the US economy, but it dearly costs businesses, both large and small, in annual revenue and profits. And if these numbers are accurate for Christians as well as people of other faiths, that means that 4/5ths of the Body of Christ would rather be playing Angry Birds, checking Facebook posts from high school buddies, or taking naps under their desks than actually working.

Considering we live in an economy ever more dependent on creativity and innovation, we have to ask the question: How did the modern world become so disengaged from work, and what can be done about it?

Gary Hamel, named by the Wall Street Journal as the world’s foremost business strategist, tried to tackle this question in his book The Future of Management. He introduced a simple framework for ranking employee engagement, which he called “A Hierarchy of Human Capabilities at Work.”

A Hierarchy of Human Capabilities at Work

Level 6: Passion

Level 5: Creativity

Level 4: Initiative

_____________________

Level 3: Expertise

Level 2: Diligence

Level 1: Obedience

At the bottom is obedience – employees who show up each day and follow the rules and procedures. Obedience is necessary for large-scale organizations, but people on Level 1 simply do what they’re told. Next is diligence. These employees stay until the job is done and take personal responsibility for their work. They’re hard workers, and want to do a good job. Level 3 is expertise, or personal competence. They’re not only hard workers, but they’re good at what they do. They’re well-trained, many have great skills, and they’re eager to learn more.

Here’s the problem, however, with Levels 1-3. “Trouble is, obedience, diligence and competence are becoming global commodities,” writes Hamel, in his new book What Matters Now. “You can buy these human capabilities just about anywhere in the world, and in places like India and China, they can be bought for next to nothing.” And corporations have realized this, which is why millions of jobs have been outsourced from American and Europe to the Far East. If you’re an employee under the line in Hamel’s Hierarchy of Human Capabilities at Work (Levels 1-3), it’s likely that sooner or later, you’ll be looking for a job.

What, then, of the higher levels? Beyond expertise is initiative. These are employees who see problems or opportunities, and don’t wait to be told what to do. They’re proactive, and find ways to initiate new projects that create value for their company.

Level 5 is creativity. Here, “employees are eager to challenge conventional wisdom and are always hunting for great ideas that can be imported from other industries.” They challenge tired industry norms, pay attention to emerging trends, leverage existing skills and assets, and meet needs that customers didn’t know they yet had. For example, the creatives at Apple weren’t the first to invent a smart phone, but they did combine the idea of a smart phone with web browsing, a music player, email, alarm clock, calendar and an ecosystem of other apps. Level 5 employees are culture-makers – they create new ways of doing and thinking, and in the process shift companies, and occasionally industries.

Yet the apex of Hamel’s Hierarchy is what he simply calls “passion.” Hear how he defines passion: “[These are] employees who see their work as a calling, as a way to make a positive difference in the world. For these ardent souls, the dividing line between vocation and avocation is indistinct at best…While other employees are merely present, they are engaged.” Vocation – a deep sense of calling, a zeal to work for a purpose beyond oneself – is the single greatest need for corporations across the globe. In a creative economy, audacity, imagination and passion create the most long-term value.

But Hamel sees a problem: “[Here’s] the rub. These higher order human capabilities are gifts; they cannot be commanded. You can’t tell someone to be passionate or creative. Well, you can, of course, but it won’t do much good.”

Let’s take a step back and summarize. Most of the world can’t stand their work. It costs the economy and businesses billions of dollars, and it costs individuals of a sense of purpose. The world’s best business thinker sees this problem and crafts  a hierarchy that puts action, creativity, and, of all things, vocation, at the top of his list of most valuable assets. But the problem is that these traits can only be gifts. That is, they must be given.

 You can probably see where I’m going here.

It’s one thing to say that we ought to think about how to live out our faith in the business world. It’s another thing to say that the most desperate need the world – and our companies – has is people who are called to initiate and to create, both activities that have their very foundation in God himself (bara is the Hebrew word for “create” or “initiate”, used to describe God’s activity in creating the universe in Genesis 1).

What’s the takeaway? One of the wisest use of resources for any company is to help people discover their vocation, and then create fertile environments whereby employees can use their gifts to grow, create, and make a difference.

I’d also say that it would be fiscally wise for corporate leaders to leave space for honest expressions of faith, recognizing that you can’t give your employees creativity or passion. But perhaps Another can.

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  1. Vocation: the holy grail of corporate America - February 20, 2014

    […] Jeff Haanen is the Executive Director of Denver Institute for Faith & Work. This post first appeared on the Denver Institute Blog. […]