If the 1960s and 70s were the era of ‘free love’ (a highly debatable point at any level other than glib slogan-slinging, of course), perhaps the current decade is one of what we might call ‘cheap love’. This short verb ‘love’, which I’m old enough to remember being firmly associated with one of the most precious, elusive and cherished human activities, now regularly crops up in ads for things as diverse as hamburgers and car insurance. The idea is that its deployment will make us highly engaged.
That the word has been fallen upon with such glee probably reflects a range of contemporary tendencies: marketing’s increasing interest in promoting a sense of ‘emotional rapport’ (scare quotes very much intended) in our relationship with a brand, a human wish for something upbeat in a world recently dominated by conflict and economic difficulties, and the world of work’s increasing interest in ensuring that we are ‘engaged’ and ‘happy’. (Scare quotes perhaps optional.)
The last of these isn’t, of course, entirely objectionable. Happy, committed and engaged people really do perform better at work, although there is – or at least one would hope – a difference between love and enthusiasm. I’m enthusiastic about Ajax FC, prawn toasts and historic monuments – I’m nothing if not single-handedly diverse – but none of these are relationships that I’m seeking to actively consummate. But what we might call ‘the happiness industry’ seems insistent on wanting to see the L-word as often as possible.
Perhaps this is a response to research such as the Monster.com/GfK survey reported by Fast Company last year, which showed that only 53% of Americans actively like their jobs. (European readers tempted toward smugness might note that the comparative figures for the UK, France and Germany were 46%, 43% and 36% – although fewer of us actually hate their jobs than Americans, where 15% did so.)
One way it seems to me that this response is often voiced is the idea of ‘Do What You Love’. Well, who wouldn’t want to do that, you might ask? To which, one answer might be ‘Quite, but perhaps you’d like a small scoop of realism with that?’. It’s a topic Charlotte Lieberman addresses in an HBR Blog, Don’t Do What You Love; Do What You Do. Among a number of good points that she makes is one rather basic one:
[…] the idea that we should all embrace the notion of DWYL makes the false assumption that getting a “lovable” job is always a matter of choice.”
There are a lot of us, after all – and a comparative shortage of jobs that are focused on something that even their metaphorical mothers might truthfully adore. Her prescription seems admirably level-headed: given that our individual chance of changing the world is pretty small, we should focus on ways on finding the good in whatever it is that we are doing, whether we ‘love’ it or not. Or, as she put it:
[…] instead of trying to find complete congruence between our passions and our livelihoods, it is perhaps more productive simply to believe in the possibility of finding opportunities for growth and satisfaction at work, even in the midst of difficulties – a controlling boss, demanding clients, competition with your colleagues, insufficient boundaries between your work life and personal life.”
This is, however, to address the issue from what will be, for at least some reading this article, the other end of the telescope. If ‘we’ in your individual case is the organisation, what are your chances of (ahem) ‘spreading the love’? Mervyn Dinnen blogged in advance of the recent HR Vision conference, where he was going to attend a session of engagement called ‘Schmooze or Lose’. As he observed:
[…] with labour market shifts embracing new arrangements such as zero hour, managed workforce, and freelancing, businesses will need to find ways to engage people who are working for them and representing them, but may not actually be employed by them.
The future for employee engagement may involve a lot more schmoozing…”
These ‘new arrangements’ are, in effect, replacing what were employer/employee relationships (within which we can at least retrospectively hope that psychological as well as literal contracts were relatively thoughtfully observed) with situations that are essentially transactional. If engagement is going to be the magic bullet that delivers a brighter tomorrow, it’s surely important that what it engages with is a current reality. And as one commentor on his post observed, that might not necessarily be the case:
I think the homogeneous “we are all in it together” is becoming fast outdated by the loosening of employment ties with the business, different ways of working and the effects technology and fragmentation will bring. Still think we are focussed on a rearview mirror of engaging with the corporation on these rules.”
Having your cake and outsourcing it is already a complicated equation, but expecting the cake to be happy as well seems to be asking rather too much. (I’m reminded of an old joke about ‘the whole ******* bakery’.) But if the future of the organisation isn’t going to be a repeat of its history, why should our approach to engagement stay the same?