Going from vacant to engaged: all you need is … ?

Our blog has crossed paths – or perhaps run in parallel with – Peter Cook of The Academy of Rock/Human Dynamics/Punk Rock HR on several occasions, and happily so. Closer attention on my part to one of his recent blog postings – Let’s pretend we’re married – Getting engaged – was sparked by what some people now seem to call ‘life events’, in that I’ve recently done the latter and am in the middle of planning what is now being referred to at home as The Big Day™.

For me, the pun of ‘engagement’ is so easy and obvious, but I’m not convinced that I believe the parallel between pro-actively participating at work and pro-actively participating at home is a realistic or fair one. I appreciate that the changes we’ve witnessed in modern life might mean we superficially look as if the opening stages – carefully crafting and positioning an online profile that shows you as the ideal candidate, while simultaneously reviewing the profiles of others to try to read between the lines and ponder the curious omissions – are fairly similar.
But even this overlooks inconvenient differences. Some have been more attractive than others, but no future employer has ever caught my eye across a crowded room and made my heart skip a beat. Nor have any suitors requested that I submit my CV to a third-party consultant for vetting and appraisal, or sit a series of psychometric tests. (Although the latter might have meant that one or two cases of terminal incompatibility came to light before the waiter brought the coffees.)

Work and our relationship with our Significant Other(s) are fundamentally different things, and only one line from a song is springing to mind that bridges the chasm. Even then, when Joni Mitchell sings The Boho Dance she’s garnishing a fiction with a simile:

You read those books where luxury
Comes as a guest to take a slave
Books where artists in noble poverty
Go like virgins to the grave”

I dare say we still have a few artists in noble poverty, pursuing a dream that isn’t based on the fiscal, but I suspect the efforts of the Department of Work and Pensions may be winnowing their number or recalibrating their expectations. And her metaphorical artists are being perversely (I hesitate to say ‘ironically’) virginal in having chosen to utterly dedicate their lives to the thing they love despite a lack of reward. Devotional celibacy – or at least the aim of it – is the thing of convents, surely?

Outside our workplaces, those of us (un)fortunate enough to have them may be looking for many things – a meeting of minds, a compatibility of hearts, someone to worship or be worshipped by – but we usually believe, at least at the outset, that this is ‘for good’. Barbara Cartland may have had more engagements than I’ve had KFC bargain buckets, but she was as far from the norm in that as she was in so many other ways. What most of us are seeking – and I’m going to use the most commonly used words, as they are significant – is someone to share our life with. The emphasis is not just on ‘share’, but on ‘life’ in all its rich plurality. For richer or poorer, in sickness and in health – we know the drill, even if the wording of the pledge varies depending on our faith, our lack of it or a legal requirement to perform a civil union.

I don’t want to sound negative, churlish or petty, but I’ve not experienced a job or a company or an HR department that has created that desire to willingly share all of life’s ups and downs. I’ve seen people be very happy in the same job or the same organisation for decades, but I doubt they’ve shared everything. I know that life partners can and do keep secrets from each other, but the list of things I don’t ever intend to mention at work is exponentially longer. Some things are private, but work isn’t one of them. Of course there are parallels: relationships and jobs have both long been the subject of expert advice (and tales from wives from a variety of ages) on how to make them succeed, and the tips frequently mention compromise (given the title of this blog, I’ll let that one slide …), openness, communication. I’m not sure how often compassion and forgiveness make an appearance (probably less than they might), but the topics that get mentioned are fairly predictable given they relate to the on-going interaction between two or more human beings.

Except, except … in any workplace, acquaintance, friendship, affairs, sometimes even love and marriage occur: we’re human, and these things happen. (We also spend a lot of lives at work: many of us meet more people through office life than any other way: even hearts succumb to laws of averages.) The guest list at my forthcoming nuptials includes many people I’ve met through working with them, but they’re invited as people, not role holders, direct reports or line managers. They’ll be there because I like them. (And I’ve worked equally effectively and contentedly with people I wouldn’t cross the road to drink coffee with, without that appearing to be a problem to either me or them.)

Yet in the arena of HR-speak and engagement, my relationship is not to a human being but to a pair of abstract concepts: my prescribed role and the organisation. Nor are we talking about a relationship between equals (which may be what marriage has always been seen as, but I’d humbly suggest is now generally true). In the labour market, as opposed to the cattle market, we are hired, promoted, demoted, sidelined or fired, but we’re the object of all those verbs, not the subject. We do things for organisations, they (mostly) do things to us. Not least, they rarely make any assumption that they are making an offer for your hand in perpetuity. We are tacitly or implicitly expected or required to demonstrate dedication and commitment, while our employers are at liberty to terminate the arrangement with a rueful ‘business is business’. “It’s only a job” is a phrase you hear most often when the job is something you’ve very recently parted company with; it’s not a phrase it’s conducive to your career chances to be heard uttering while you have one. You might feel married to your job, but it’s more likely it feels like it’s having an affair. Or several affairs, to be accurate. (Feeling special now?)

Of course, it’s us that sometimes do the terminating. If we’re going to quote popular song, indulge me while I argue that Prof Karl Pillemer’s “refrigerator list” of the five lessons gleaned from the collective 50,000 years’ experience of the subjects of his book, 30 Lessons for Living:

1. Choose a career for the intrinsic rewards, not the financial ones.
2. Don’t give up on looking for a job that makes you happy.
3. Make the most of a bad job.
4. Emotional intelligence trumps every other kind.
5. Everyone needs autonomy.”

can be boiled down to the pithier advice that David Bowie sang in Everyone Says ‘Hi’:

Don’t stay in a bad place where they don’t care who you are.”

Peter Cook made reference to Morrissey, and (rightly) includes The Smiths’ Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now, presumably for its line “I was looking for a job and then I found a job, and heaven knows …”. I was thinking more in terms of what HR can do to inspire engagement and a sense of belonging that couldn’t equally be boiled down to ‘be nice’, at which point I stumbled over another Morissey quote about the perils of blandness:

Don’t talk to me about people who are ‘nice’ cause I have spent my whole life in ruins because of people who are ‘nice’.”

M&S Food Hall and branches of Laura Ashley bring on the same reaction in me, although attitudes to blandness are subjective. One man’s beige …
I did, however, find a quote that fits both work and life when it comes to ‘love’ and identifies something I do see as common ground between them, although I need to add two caveats. The first is that its author, Antoine de Saint-Exupery, was not a rock icon; literary icon, aviation pioneer, oui, guitar hero, non. (His Little Prince neither wore purple nor sung about doves, rain or berets.) The second caveat is that context is everything. I’ve always been a bit puzzled by the phrase ‘work/life balance’, as I’m not sure how you balance something with a sub-set of itself. Work, surely, is something one of the plates we spin along with family, our relationship with our Significant Other, leisure, housework and so on: life, meanwhile, is the whole crockery set. If it happens outside life, doesn’t that mean it’s death? Most jobs aren’t quite that bad, or that final.

But what I think does matter, for those involved in any of those sub-sets of living, is of trying to find agreement of outlook. It’s not about adoration, it’s about sharing enough to feel that the circumstance is one you wish to stay in – in the world of HR-speak, I guess this is ‘alignment’, although it’s not a word I’d use at a Valentine’s Day supper. (When it doesn’t happen any longer, people leave organisations, musicians leave bands and relationships founder.) Hence my very un-rock’n’roll quote:

Life has taught us that love does not consist in gazing at each other but in looking outward together in the same direction.”

But who can we get to write the music?

Comments (2)
  • Peter Cook - The Rock'n'Roll Business Blogger

    May 1, 2012

    Morrissey is indeed the king of realistic observation about niceness – shyness is nice etc. and perhaps that is the point, that engagement at work is not anything close to its romantic cousin, but is discussed in such terms by optimistic HR people. Great discourse on the vexations of the engagement issue. Rob Brier from Bath aligned with my own view, which said there is little or no correlation between measures of engagement and high performance. This is a very unsatisfactory finding for the keen HR person.

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