If it’s not about the money, money, money, then what is work for?

What is work for, if not primarily money? How might work deliver experiences of recognition as well as respect in the future?

Money and time

Treat yourself – imagine that you have $10,000 and four days off to upskill for the future of work. What do you study? To see Harvard’s answer, take a look at its inaugural ‘Managing the Future of Work’ executive programme running for the first time this October. Philosophy isn’t mentioned, but how could a day of abstract brain-ache deliver $2,500 of value? No way! This blog asks: might that point of view be wrong?

Is what matters about ‘being human’ obvious or not? If we say it’s obvious, then the future of work will be human. Reflexivity and questioning is what distinguishes us from other animals and old-style thinking machines. The Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor puts it like this: animals have wants, but we have wants about our wants. We may not like that we like something (chocolate, for example) and we question our impulses.

If being human involves questioning what being human is – not as nice-to-have, but as a fundamental, then we have to answer ‘not obvious’. In which case we’re going to need to engage with at least some tapas-sized philosophy. I can hear you wondering, ‘does the restaurant at the end of the universe serve tapas?’

A fantasy philosophy day

No-one can become a philosopher in a day, and I’m no philosopher (although like any doctoral graduate I did chew my way through a pile of fairly hard-core books). A day’s philosophy could create a mind-opening experience and offer a useable take-away. Here’s an example.

After high quality coffee, we spend the morning being guided and entertained through some high-speed philosophical history. For example a helicopter tour of a book like Taylor’s ‘Sources of the Self’. From this we grasp:

  • For more than a century, one powerful current in philosophy has been deep concern at what goes wrong when we think of ourselves as solitary, rational brains on sticks (which Descartes did in ‘I think, therefore I am’).
  • Everyday understandings of what it is to be human have changed over time, and where we now find ourselves.

Over lunch we role play some common management and HR practices (for example ‘feedback’), but with a philosophical lens. We pay attention to how easily we slip into treating colleagues as manipulatable objects, violating Kant’s categorical imperative. As we eat, our speaker shows how the powerful subjects of our time (such as economics, psychology, sociology and management – certainly most things taught on an MBA programme) – are Cartesian to the core.

If philosophers like Taylor are right, this lands us in deep trouble when we think about the connections between each other which we need in order to be human. In debates on the future of work this looks like too much fascination with cash and the cognitive – witness the new ‘smartest kid in the room’ (AI) – and not enough enquiry into respect, self-respect and the roots of human identity.

Clearly, what the afternoon needs is that tapas-sized applicable insight from non-Cartesian philosophy of the last century. Here is one.

Recognition, respect, love

Hierarchy of needs 2.0

Almost all of my coaching clients have fond memories of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Social needs play an important part in his pyramid, but the apex (self-actualisation) is you alone – your unique self. Most psychology, including social psychology, has a Cartesian DNA. By contrast, see the diagram to the left, for a hierarchy of needs drawn from the work of philosopher Axel Honneth which is social at every level.

Start at the bottom and think about growing up. Being loved whoever we are and without conditional manipulation is foundational; without that, our journey is rocky indeed. Respect, we then discover, has to be earned; but the earning criterion has to be fairly applied. Dawn gets to stay up late because she got an A for her homework, we are told. If we then get an A but don’t get to stay up, we experience disrespect. Respect links to skill, achievement and fairness. Respect is what the modern, meritocratic workplace offers.

Yet something is missing. Unconditional love means being loved regardless of who you are or what you do. Getting an A fairly means regardless of your gender, race or class and so on. ‘Regardless’ means not seeing – it’s the same kind of blindness depicted on statues of justice. But what if we do not fully exist until we are fully seen by others? Honneth characterises ‘peak existence’ (my terminology) as recognition. For him, two essential conditions are:

  • Recognition emerges (or not) between two individuals in a way which neither can control.
  • It can’t happen without a simultaneous, mutual acceptance of competence.

Maybe your last experience of recognition was in a conversation with a peer in a wine bar. You found yourself recounting what you had delivered through a change management programme at work; your friend didn’t just say it was outstanding, but her body language backed it up, and implicitly both of you accepted each other as competent to tell the difference between terrific and ordinary in that field.

Contrast that with your boss also praising your results (if indeed she did). If Honneth is right, that could only be an experience of recognition if it emerged conversationally beyond the control of either of you, and you recognise your boss as competent to give the judgement. Formal feedback systems assume that the line manager can control what is fed back, and doesn’t put up for debate the line manager’s competence.

Organisations may call throwing cash or awards at you ‘recognition’, but mostly they don’t meet our highest need. Intuitively we probably know that.

What the future of work holds

How might a radically different future of work deliver experiences of recognition as well as respect? My hunch is that within 20 years we may see new kinds of employee-led communities, to which admission is selective and which those admitted may belong for long, stable periods of time – much longer than individuals stay with one employer – in order to grow in skills, insight and as humans in ways which the transactional employment marketplace ignores. Raw ingredients for these organisations can be seen in business school alumni groups, trade unions, professional bodies, gender or sexuality networks, and websites such as Glassdoor. Employers might confront new power structures in which being taken off recommended lists by a prestigious employee group could be as serious as a profit warning.

That is speculation. What isn’t speculation is that we urgently need a much deeper understanding about what work is for. Work and getting cash may be about to part company in the way sex and pregnancy did sixty years ago – not totally, but nevertheless transformationally. We need to understand what work is really for, when it is not primarily about money. Philosophy is only an optional subject if we wish the future of work to be human.

Dr Douglas Board (@BoardWryter) is Head of Career Management at Coachmatch, a senior visiting fellow at Cass Business School and a satiric novelist.

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