A reflection on work

The dialogue with Noureddine Mhakkak, Morrocan writer and poet, is a cultural journey into the worlds of Letters and the Arts. That is to say in the world of poetry, prose, cinema, painting, and photography on the one hand and in the world of current affairs too.

Noureddine Mhakkak (NM): Tell us about the meaning of work, your experience in the field of work, and your vision in this field.

Julie Guégan (JG): Work can be an activity of empowerment and well-being, and until this vision is shared more widely, our society will remain unhappy. Basically, the way we experience professional activity, which is both devouring and a source of resources, can only have a considerable impact on our lives. In my opinion, two changes of perspective are essential.

The first is to evolve into something more natural, without any posture. We could remain the same person at work and at home, thus no longer changing roles to gain authenticity in relationships. Moreover, the episode of COVID-19 will I hope be a pivotal moment for this realisation that dissociation alienates us, as Karl Marx had pointed out, and that we would have everything to gain by carrying out a real reflection on the notion of alignment and trust between the employer and employees. Then, I agree with Foucault when he said that “work is an individual contribution to a collective enterprise”, a body, and soul “commitment”. The individual is at the heart of the system. In this sense, his basic specific needs must absolutely be met at work, since he devotes considerable time and energy to it.

Be careful of how the collective interest could be used as a weapon to make individuals in the system feel guilty. It is an indisputable fact that you can only give good to others when you are good with yourselves. So “I don’t forget myself in the system, I also defend what I am there”, and “the system no longer takes me as a replaceable pawn”. This is the basis: my identity and my needs must be respected, which does not imply rebellious and often unproductive disobedience as we will see later.

I will share this vision, through some illustrations, and for that, I will follow Maslow’s famous pyramid on our basic needs. In my opinion, it offers a simple framework that most people are familiar with. In this article, I would discuss both employee and employer responsibility as well as corporate social responsibility.

NM: According to a Danish proverb “Work is half of health”. In your opinion, what is the relationship between work and health?

JG: How would you rate your company’s strategy today with regard to physical needs and health? An interesting question for everyone and the first basic need identified by Maslow. This need concerns, for example, breathing, which is essential to our well-being.

Unfortunately, we can see everywhere that the breathing time seems to have decreased. Whether it is useful or not, we seek to deliver a task, a bit like checking a box, often urgently. Most of us have developed this habit of speeding up not only decision-making but also implementation, sometimes with fewer and fewer resources. When everything accelerates, the risk, apart from the fact that it is harmful to employees or managers, is that the result will not meet expectations. In general, the decision then is to increase communication budgets. In short, no doubt, we are in the post-industrial age.

Still, it’s a pity as we start to get creative after 15 minutes of boredom. Businesses as well as individuals, therefore, have every interest in finding the means to cope with the drifts of our century, such as dealing with the time-wasters that are numerous applications or social media. Many companies now choose to offer courses in meditation and mindfulness. That’s a good thing, we could go even further, like encouraging moments of disconnection by imposing technological breaks (even during the day, against chain meetings, which are so harmful), holding most training courses in nature, or giving always more flexibility to choose the appropriate work locations for reflection, research, listening,.. All of this, disconnected, with good old-fashioned notebooks and pens.

Of course, everything I am saying here looks like common sense, but in this time of the attention economy, the need for support should not be underestimated. We are faced with a real public health problem. So, individuals have a responsibility to realize the need to slow down in order to breathe and not continue to put unnecessary pressure on their own systems, but employers also have a key role to play, especially with regard to the most vulnerable people. It seems essential to me to remind that it is not being radical today to see the limits of a system that has led us to more seasonal depression, or even, let’s say it bluntly, suicides. And what about all the diseases, which are not directly linked to work, but which basically do not cast doubt on their origins?

Moreover, it is very sad to see that after Europe, it is the turn of emerging countries to want to benefit from the superficial benefits of this system, which values profit rather than well-being. We are perhaps sinning by our arrogance to make them believe that we are happy?! We just have to see the advertisements touting our way of life. Yet, if we were more honest with ourselves, we would see that our lives are not like those on the small screen. Instead of colourful vibrant energies, you will mostly find gray faces in the subway, the streets, or at work. No, really, there is a new dream to be created.

But back to our subject: health. The second plan to consider is that of food. The problem here is not just what is served in the canteens, that is, foods low in vitamins, fiber, and high in sugar. It is also the problem of the fruit of labour which comes like a poisoned apple to invade our homes. Too much industrial food, of poor nutritonal quality, too many pesticides and other chemicals that poison us. The care seems so absent. All over. And no, things will not improve with the current trends on veganism, at least from what I observe with the new plant-based fashion, which is to me another step away from nature.

Though, it would be damn hypocritical to point fingers, without acknowledging the responsibility of all of us. We human beings, wherever we live, are participating in one way or another in destroying ourselves and our planet. There are no good guys or bad guys. There are only individuals who need to wake up and urgently change their practices, stop being weak in the face of temptation, and encourage each other to do better for future generations.

NM: In the field of work, there is always a leadership that can influence its group and pushes it towards success. Could you tell us about this essential role?

JG: I continue to develop my answers in connection with Maslow’s pyramid. Here, I will focus on the second need, security. For a long time, we believed that security was going to be obtained with a long-term contract or fixed hours. Thus, our company believed that in order to free up talent, it had to give a stable base to workers and thus reduce anxiety in the face of an uncertain future. However, this need for security has been misinterpreted, and as a result, many fellow citizens seem to tend towards despair, a sense of worthlessness and disengagement (sometimes even active!), despite a semblance of stability (which we know will never exist. When death arrives, most of us are not prepared…).

So, for more security, it is not a stable contract that is needed, but a strong feeling, anchored in us, that we can act in a clear and secure benevolent framework, as well as benefit from essential balances (I recommend this excellent book from Ivo Velitchkov “Essential Balances: stop looking and start seeing what makes organizations work”).

Both will give us this psychological security, so essential to Lencioni (international expert in team management) and will lead us to express all our talents and therefore our power. Among the tools, a good management is even more key today than it used to. But do not misinterpret me here, it’s just for a transition period, during which most of us are still pretty good followers, not yet aware of our leadership capabilities and equipped to make them flourish for the benefit of the planet. Just look at the number of time wasted on Netflix as proof…

This management will know how to reassure by giving direction, alignment, and guiding principles. In my opinion, it’s the sine qua non for distributed leadership, which would empower everyone to contribute to a system that is both more effective and more fulfilling. The manager opens the floodgates of leadership and, according to Denis Prieur, former prefect and state councilor, his guiding principles are as follows:

  • Confidence, which is expressed in particular through language, and which inspires self-confidence;
  • Clarity, of the framework, of the direction for example and of the expectations in terms of behaviours, mentalities, and attitudes
  • Consideration, through empathy, letting go, principle of subsidiarity
  • Coherence, in particular through an alignment between values and behaviours;
  • Courage, work on the essential co-operation between heart and brain, master your feelings, energy or conviction.

If you are interested, you can find my conversation with him on my YouTube channel. Now, a priority is to bring out this leadership in all (and progressively stop spending so much money on strengthening the top and middle management…), to support employees in a positive approach, of creativity and innovation, and to give them fundamental skills, such as systems thinking, resilience, collaboration or accountability in order to implement it over time. And because self-awareness is critical to deploy leadership, if there is a need for repair work in individuals, my opinion is that the company has a responsibility to act, ideally with support from institutions to enable “healing” of the person in-depth, in an approach that would lead the individual to be the actor of his or her change. All systems are interconnected, so one weak person weakens the whole system. From my research, equipping people with proper competencies will not turn them into radicals and rebels. On the contrary, it will equip them not to fall into certain traps, such as the unproductive rebellion one. If there is a need for a collective wake-up, we do not need a revolution, which always leads to another revolution.

Let me explain. Rebels often live harmful conflicts between their values and the values of the system they are in, it’s not a desirable state! Hence, from history, we know that they have never changed the world for the better. More rebels only lead to more violence, the violence that is found in themselves. I will expose other more productive strategies in future articles and videos. Because change, yes, that you could understand is something we need!

In conclusion, everything must be done to promote the deployment of leadership in organisations. For that to happen, a lot of things have to be changed, starting with everything I talk about in this article. The goal is to go beyond the definition of work to rethink how humanity can implement the actions that will be truly relevant to increasing general well-being. But we have to start somewhere… And the strongest link is undoubtedly that of manager / leader, since we still spend a large part of our time there.

NM: According to Sigmund Freud again,“ Others always play in the life of the individual the role of a model, an object, an associate or an adversary. What do you think of these words in the field of work?

JG: You give me the opportunity to talk about the third basic need identified by Maslow, which concerns friendship and basically the feeling of belonging, which requires acting on relationships. So why is friendship at work so important? In his Pyramid of Collaboration, Oscar Berg tells us that investing in relationships is what will increase trust and enable the company to become collaborative. I would also like to take this opportunity to reiterate here that the main raison d’être of every business is collaboration. What Berg tells us is that informal moment and the sharing of knowledge increase conversations, thus opportunities for serendipity, and ultimately, for collaboration. Yes, it is by investing in the submerged, underground, invisible part of the iceberg that we will increase the chances of success in the face of mega challenges, which will be solved by mobilizing all of the living forces (no matter where they are located).

Through this illustration, I hope you understand better the importance of deploying tactics to spice up and foster this friendship. I can cite, for example, the value of stimulating healthy competition (organising games using gamification for example), the creation of transversal projects, the establishment of a corporate social network, the organization of festive events or ways to instill shared responsibility by collectively managing a knowledge sharing platform. You can also increase the number of collective intelligence workshops (such as our Together-Ensemble workshops). In short, I think we can be creative, as long as we respect the need for disconnection and focus.

NM: In the field of work, there are always several ways to do any job, but there is always a way to do better. How then can we discover it and show it to the workers?

JG: You are giving me a good opportunity to talk about the 4th level which concerns self-esteem, trust, and respect. In my own experience, you don’t change others. The only thing you can do is change yourself to model the behaviours you want for someone else. At the level of an organisation, the strategy is to act in priority on the actors who have the most confidence of the workers.

According to recent surveys, management is losing confidence points every day. This perhaps explains why the big investments in training for managers have had little impact on companies to increase collaboration. My opinion would therefore be to start to gradually reduce the sails in order to free up the budget for actions with more impact. According to numerous surveys, our society tends to value peers more and more (Gabor Maté warns us against this, but we will talk about it another day …). So, to encourage doing better, you have to invest in peers, that is, employees! And since this is a very large mass, the strategy is to seek out influencers and multipliers, whose leadership is already flourishing and who also benefit the most from the trust of their peers. So there are many tools to spot them. The goal is then to invest in them, to offer them the support and skills I mentioned above, as well as some tools. I would add two fundamental ingredients, the guiding principles of the manager which we spoke about above and the recognition of what I call myself, these “co-leaders of the future”.

NM: According to Sigmund Freud also “Happiness is a childhood dream realized in adulthood. Can you tell us about the meaning of happiness at work, based on real-life experiences or books read?

Here we are, all set for the fifth level, which is about growth and achievement. The goal is to achieve what I said in the introduction, both empowerment and well-being.

And to do so, I invite you to focus your attention on a few pitfalls to avoid:

  • The individual needs that we have seen so far. I think if we realize that our basic needs must absolutely be met in the course of our work, then there is a good chance that our society will flourish more. There are no one-size-fits-all recipes, it’s just a matter of keeping Maslow’s pyramid model in mind and asking ourselves the question of adequacy on a regular basis. Employers who have put the development and well-being of their employees at the forefront know well that the impact on the results is there, not to mention the reduction in turnover, and I don’t think they would consider for a single second to go back. As an employee, we can make sure we follow the pyramid, without waiting for the employer to do it for us, of course.
  • Value diversity and take everyone seriously. Treasures are never where you look for them. Nothing is worse than focusing on behaviours that are often superficial. In general, perfection is a trick and a tactic for people, who are disconnected from themselves. It’s about valuing vulnerability and authenticity, as Brené Brown encourages us to do. I, therefore, encourage you to remain true to yourself but also to…
  • Practice humility! Turn every humiliation into humility, and never let go. Your values are no better than those of others. But one day it will be your turn. Be ready. Coelho’s alchemist reminds us of the need to prepare.
  • Stop “coolness”. I see more and more parents playing rebellious teenagers when children are pushed too quickly to behave like adults. When everything is turned around, it is obvious that the world ends up on its head. Adult development is the key and I invite you to watch this video on YouTube with Cécil Schmitt, on dialectical thinking.
  • Another trap to be avoided this time is linked to genres. For women, appreciate that you can be angry and respond to it with appropriate actions. The key is knowing how to use power and love, benevolence and authority, also at work (not just at home!). As for men, a little empathy never hurts, especially with regard to the societal pressure on women who must ensure in all areas…. I have the feeling that there is still a lot of fear on either side. It’s a shame, we would have so much to gain by listening and understanding each other better.
  • Finally, in any transformation project, it is a priority to work on relationships. No interest without this in working on the structure or the procedures. However, this is a pitfall that many human resources departments still fall into today, despite having a negative impact on happiness at work and therefore results.

I hope that these few thoughts will bring you closer to the professional happiness, so dear to my heart.

The original article was published in French and in a shorter version and with a different title on Al Bayane

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