That's Why They Call It Work?

I hear from a lot of readers, and a decent-size chunk of them are retired CEOs. I guess that makes sense. It could be fun and satisfying to read business advice once you have time to think about workplace topics in the abstract, vs. having dozens of priorities to juggle every day and precious little energy left over to devote to leadership and talent management and the other things I write about.

A great deal of my retired-CEO mail floods in when I write about leadership. The retired-CEO population (or at least the subset of it that writes to me) is split roughly down the middle in its views on the employer-employee relationship. When I write something like, “An employee’s job is to give 100 percent at the job every day, and an employer’s job is to give the employee a reason to come back to work tomorrow,” half of my retired-CEO correspondents say, “Hear, hear!” The other half write, “That’s horrible of you. What’s happened to the American work ethic? You should be telling people to knuckle down and make money for their employers.”

I chuckle at the second set of letters. What has happened to the American work ethic, after all? I remember hearing about the American work ethic when I was a little kid. My dad worked at the same company for 35 years. That company’s name reverberated in our household like an overarching good presence, the place where Dad went every day and where our day-to-day sustenance and college funding originated. I don’t think I questioned (nor did my parents, as far as I know) the stability of the family income during the whole of my childhood. It was a non-issue. Same for my friends’ parents. (And if someone lost his job, it was a neighborhood event, a semi-tragedy that moms spoke about quietly with one another or with their husbands when out of earshot of the kids.)

My dad had that true-blue work ethic, and I don’t blame him. It’s part of who he was, but he also had every good reason to believe his employer would do the right thing by him year in and year out, and it did. It was a different time. Who would take an entry-level sales job out of college and go on to have eight kids under the assumption that more and more responsible and lucrative work would emerge in time to sustain the growing family? That wasn’t a bad bet in 1950. It would be financial folly today.


The old saw, “It’s not supposed to be fun—that’s why they call it work,” is one of my grumpy former-CEO pen pals’ favorite rants. The crazy part is, I don’t believe for one second any one of those guys (all guys, so far, in my retired-CEO fan club) actually managed that way during his corner-office days. My take is that when I talk about the non-Scroogey, humanistic leadership style on paper, it looks wimpy and communist. (These aren’t my adjectives—they come from my curmudgeonly CEO homies.) Any CEO who managed a company like a Theory X autocrat for years on end would probably have dropped dead of a heart attack long before retirement. But who knows? I’m not sure anyone has looked at the correlation. Still, I don’t believe that the crustiest of my online critics really managed people through the lens of, “It’s a job—just do it.” That would be really foolish of them if they did.

“It’s not supposed to be fun—that’s why they call it work” makes no sense at all from a management perspective. If you take apart the logic for one second, it falls completely apart. No CEO would knowingly keep someone in his shop who came to work every day and slogged through his or her duties because of the paycheck, would he? Work has to be fun. If it isn’t fun, the CEO so quick to say, “That’s why they call it work,” is screwing himself over.

What kind of effort, creativity, or productivity are you going to get out of someone performing a job against his will? Are you going to tell your shareholders and customers, “Here at Acme Explosives, our motto is, ‘Work’s not supposed to be fun.’ Our employees are highly qualified individuals who don’t choose to be here but come for the money. That level of commitment helps us ensure a moderate level of customer service at all times.”


If people aren’t into the work, why in God’s name would you have them on the payroll? I’m not talking about browbeating people into wearing corporate logo polo shirts and singing the company song. That’s the fake culture-of-merriment crap skewered so well in the movie Office Space—it’s flair. Fake fun is pointless; worse than that, it’s insulting. Real fun at work is in the work itself. The work is fun. It’s stimulating. We have a reason to give a fig. That’s every CEO’s ideal employee, right? What CEO capable of coherent thought would say, “No, I want the other kind—the employee who doesn’t care about us and has no passion for what we do. I want someone who’s here strictly for the money.”

When we hire people, we shouldn’t be so obsessive about whether they have seven years of marketing or an MBA or some obscure certification. Employers need people to have some level of proficiency with the major elements of the job. But we put way too much emphasis on formal job requirements, in the stupidest possible way. Your hiring process should focus on getting smart and nimble people in the door, and if those smart and nimble people aren’t excited about your opportunity, don’t hire them.

Of course, you have to understand the opportunity yourself, to convey it to someone who doesn’t know you. You can’t say, “We need someone to do payroll.” You have to fill your job candidates in on the story. You have to hire someone who loves what he or she does, not someone who merely has the experiences listed in your job ad. If your HR people are slowing down the process—and I’d be amazed if they aren’t—take them out of the loop. It is way past time to break the pointless and fear-based web of red tape that keeps great people out of our organizations. It’s bad business. It’s irresponsible leadership.

Your job ads push away talent when they say, “You must have an MBA, significant experience with these three tools, and at least two of these four certifications.” That’s the worst possible way to find talented people. Your job ad should say, “Write three paragraphs that tell me why this is exactly the job you should be doing.” How hard is that? It requires someone thoughtful and mature to read the responses. Recruiting is your company’s most important function. Can you devote just enough attention to it to substitute bulk keyword searching with human judgment and discretion? If you can’t, do you have any claim to a leadership culture at all?


The work ethic hasn’t gone anywhere. The best people are still around, working in great companies or looking for cool opportunities with forthright and trustworthy teams of other smart people. Cotton Mather’s Puritan worldview is still out there, but more and more employers are catching on to the huge link between empowered workers and breakthrough thinking (and team spirit and perseverance and profits). They’re moving the needle away from ”You’ll do what you’re told and like it” management toward a leadership approach that assumes only great people fill your payroll (because what kind of CEO would hire any other kind?) and treats team members that way—visibly, viscerally, and organically—every day.

If we can get there, we can lose the expensive and demeaning policies that require people to bring in a funeral notice to get two days’ of death leave, or to cover every step they make with forms and signatures and approvals to make sure that no one slipped up and acted on an independent thought. We can lose all that brainless and fear-based stuff. We can spend our mental and emotional energy defeating our competitors, instead of wasting cycles ensuring our employees don’t move a muscle we didn’t tell them to.

I teach my MBA candidate students about frames—mental structures that we create for events and phenomena that allow us to quickly make sense of and categorize new things and situations we encounter. One of the big frames in the work-and-jobs arena is one I call the Cotton Mather frame. You remember Cotton Mather, of course—he was a bigwig back in Puritan times. Guys like Cotton Mather set the tone for American cultural values in a big way. The Cotton Mather frame says such things as, “Self-improvement is a virtue. We are imperfect and must work at improving ourselves. Correction is a gift. We are erring souls and benefit from submission. A stern father figure will make all important decisions. The law is above all. Wickedness must be punished.”

We may not perceive this frame in our home lives, but it’s framing our lives at work to a huge degree. We ask interview questions such as “What is your greatest weakness?” as though peering into a person’s psyche and asking him or her to share personal failings is a perfectly normal line of questioning in a business conversation. Would you ask the plumber when he comes to your door, “What’s your greatest weakness?” In the U.S. we believe that full-time, payroll-type employment requires subjugation. If we were equals, goes that tenet, one of us wouldn’t be working for the other one.


We have the glorious and bloody robber-baron past to further shape the frame we’ve erected around the notion of employment. Workers used to live in the company town and shop with scrip at the company store (not by choice; it was part of the deal). We associate entrepreneurism with pluck and inventiveness and professional derring-do. We associate salaried or hourly employment with drudgery and subservience—and faceless office drones in vast subterranean rabbit warrens. This is part of our go-to-work frame. But it’s not all bad. Part of our frame for work also says, “The people at work can be fantastic” and “If you work hard, you can rise in the company.”

Now that it’s harder to rise in a company and work is harder than ever, we need a new way to think about work. It’s not going to rely on “You get paid, so don’t expect to enjoy it.” Leadership is cheap. Old-fashioned, crew-boss management is expensive. Do you really want any sliver of your leadership payroll to go toward watching over the mice who can’t be trusted to do their work independently? Do you want to spend money keeping people in line? Smart leaders have figured out that the more they cling to the mindset of “I’m paying you, so shut up and do what you’re told,” the more they’re helping their competitors.

My Australian friends like to remind me that part of their easy-going and slightly rebellious culture is based on the fact that lots of their forebears were convicts. Could it be that American Puritan values (such as, “The American work ethic says you keep working hard, whether it’s in your best interest or not”) cascading down to us from 400 years ago are standing in the way of American leadership in innovation globally? Once we’ve squeezed every drop of productivity out of our teams through technology, force of will, and brute effort, where will the next leap come from?

Could it be that reimagining hiring, management, and communication—by hiring only people who wouldn’t be anywhere else and setting them loose to create amazing things—is what’s next? It’s right in front of us. Will your organization get there in time?