Of Wasted Man

Jobs are the engine of our economy. And during hard times, many people would be grateful just to be working again. The quality of working life isn’t a big topic. Still, we have a problem.

We have a giant, inefficient engine that leaks oil and belches steam. It’s hungry and every day we struggle to feed it. While it’s noisy, slow, and loud, it runs every day without fail. It’s been there all our lives. Since our first day on the job we learned we must feed it. Since then we’ve learned we don’t harness more than 30% of it’s energy. But we accepted that long ago. We stopped questioning it’s inefficiency. More fuel! The engine is constant. It’s just a fuel shortage. We need more fuel.

I disagree. We have an engine problem. We need a better one. If this were an article on engines, I would call this an engineering problem. But it isn’t about engines. It’s about business and our woefully inadequate use of human capital. There wouldn’t be a labor shortage if we didn’t waste the human capacity we already have. The fuel has evolved; it is the richest, best educated, and most knowledgeable fuel the world has ever known. It has the capacity to shoot for stars undreamed and undiscovered. We’re pouring rocket fuel into a crude, leaky, rusty pile of scrap metal. The engine has not evolved, it is outdated and inefficient. Wastefully consuming valuable fuel is not a long term solution.

Quiet Lives Of Desperation

Remember the assembly line? Of course you do – you live it. All work in America is based on this model. Learn to do something and do it well. Now, repeat it as often and as fast as you can so we can make money. Bored? Not a problem – you’ll find a way to rationalize your need for a paycheck and buckle down. Eventually, you’ll just go through the motions. You’ll remember your daughter is counting on you to bring home the bacon and stop dreaming about a better job. You’ll live for the weekends, listen to country music and to mentally check out  Monday through Friday. This is the assembly line mentality, a universal by-product of the assembly line. If we harnessed what people are capable of contributing we would not be worried about a labor shortage. If we leveraged our investment in people instead of systematically demotivating them, we wouldn’t even think about a labor shortage. But when we break work down into simple and repetitive components, then plunk someone into that job, we are asking for trouble. They might be challenged at first, but not for long.

The fact is, most people are disengaged and less productive because they are not challenged appropriately. Most people spend the bulk of their careers underemployed. Just for fun, form a focus group and ask how many people love to go to work in the morning. Ask how many have felt this way before, and find out how long they experience this. You’ll find it doesn’t happen to everybody, and only lasts for short periods of time. Compare that amount of time to the length of a career. Even those who experience real engagement only do so for a small percentage of their career. This widespread disengagement is not the goal, but a very real by-product of business today. To spend so much time severely underutilized is an indignity. When you picture it on a grand scale you understand why it is said that most men lead quiet lives of desperation.

To address the labor shortage solely through recruiting is to accept the premise that the existing business structure sufficiently captures the energy people are willing to give to a job. Finding cheaper labor offshore is another way of propping up a flawed system. But not every industry can outsource. For many, learning to utilize their people more effectively is critical. Yet they tend to do so within the existing system. I don’t hear anyone questioning the system itself. Anyone? Anyone? …Buehler?

A Terrible Thing To Waste

What if we realized we had plenty of fuel, but we were wasting it. How might we  redesign the human condition at work. Instead of dividing the workplace into a cube farm with turf wars, politics, and narrow job descriptions, could we pursue business goals from a context of inspiration, growth, and maximizing the human energy we invest? It’s as fundamental as how we divide work, what we expect from people, and for how long. They say we only use 10% of the brain. Hiring someone today might capture 30% of that over the course of a career. So much for leveraging human capital. Remember that ad that said “A mind is a terrible thing to waste”. They were right – how about wasting a whole person? Business does it on a grand scale, but employees need to wake up and realize a career is a terrible thing to waste too.

Lately, we’ve found ways to celebrate this situation – reality television’s biggest hits, ‘The Apprentice’ and ‘Survivor’ give us voyeuristic pleasure in watching people struggle in situations that parallel our own work environment – complete with cutthroat competition and mind -numbing boredom. Everybody gets dumped except a winner. Hooray for business! Who wants to work in a  situation like that? Doh! We already do. Sure, it’s great entertainment, but it’s no way to spend your working life. Yet most Americans spend their careers in an assembly line. Failure – even on the TV shows – is attributed to the individual, not the system, because we have accepted the business context. On both shows, people are chewed up and spat out. The ‘rejects’ disappear – along with all their talent. We need to rethink this. I consider the continuous exodus of bright talented people from companies a failure. And, failure on such a widespread basis suggests a systemic problem. It’s the system, stupid.

What’s funny is that Mentally checking out is a learned behavior – it’s a survival skill – and not anybody’s first choice. People prefer to be engaged. It’s our nature to be curios and creativite. We’ve learned to squelch these traits in exchange for repetitive, unchallenging work. And, the same system systematically eliminates this energy gives us executives telling everyone to ‘think out of the box’ (the one we put you in) and ‘be creative’ or ‘look for synergy’. Even with inspirational leaders, it’s just lipstick on a pig. Dress her up all you want, she’s still a pig. Even good leadership won’t consistently overcome bad structure. The bottom line is that companies today lose bright talented people every day due to their inability to challenge them effectively. It is a management challenge brought on by the business structure – how work is divided and people are managed. These same companies complain that they can’t find enough good people. 

A New Century

Using human capital more efficiently requires a different model. The assembly line was based on scarce financial capital and abundant labor. Finance is the center, humans are adapted around it. That was last century. Today, these factors are reversed. Financial capital is abundant, human capital is not. We need a model organized around modern conditions.

We need a new model for both social and economic reasons. When people engage, their energy, creativity, and productivity create a higher quality of life. While the idea of reorganizing our way of work my be new to you, recall that there were employment models before the assembly line – slavery, for example. That went away for social reasons. How about indentured servitude (if you have a family and work in a corporation, you might argue that it’s alive and well). The point is that inventing a better employment model is incredibly worthwhile. This is a new century. We have different dynamics. In order to move forward we have to question the existing framework. It’s not hard. Abolishing slavery was hard. This is just socio-economic engineering.

As any good MBA candidate knows, innovation comes from the margins. Corporate America won’t figure out how to use their people better. They will strive mightily to prolong their ‘success’. Innovation will come from disaffected corporate dropouts, or a smaller company’s rocketing growth will attract attention. Observers will wonder how they come to their success, learn the innovations and follow the model. Once a new model is seen as a strategic advantage will it spread like wildfire.


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