Back to Library
Training & Business Systems

What if Good Work was the Norm?

Coming together to create more good work, right here, right now

What if Good Work Was the Norm?

One of the common pieces of conversation prompted by the pandemic has been that “after this is over, everything is going to be different.” It sounds uplifting… though I’m not sure what people are imagining will have changed. While a crisis (personal or collective) can cause reflection, more often than not, when it’s over, things merely revert to being much the way they were before it happened. It’s nice to aspire to be better, but when we’ve allowed something to go the same way for a long time, it’s not easy to alter it. The good news, though, is that it can be done.

Much of the world right now feels like it’s in a bit of a holding pattern. Hanging on until the newly-announced vaccine successes can be rolled out; wondering what will happen at the holidays; waiting for new leadership to start work in Washington. And yet, I’d like to suggest that we have the power to get going right now. To begin making that better world we all want. We may not be able to personally change the whole world this week. But we can alter what we do when we go to work.

One place to start would be by trying to end what Wendell Berry, writing while we were in our last big national crisis in 2009, called “bad work.” While the pandemic and politics have the headlines, bad work is as big (or maybe bigger) of a long-term problem. “The industrialization of virtually all forms of production and service,” Berry writes, “has filled the world with ‘jobs’ that are meaningless, demeaning and boring—as well as inherently destructive. I don’t think there is an argument for the existence of such work, and I wish for its elimination.” A century before Berry brought it up, Emma Goldman’s BFF Alexander Berkman wrote, “The things the craftsman produced . . . were objects of joy and beauty, because the artisan loved his work. Can you expect the modern drudge . . . to make beautiful things? He is part of the machine, a cog in the soulless industry, his labor mechanical, forced.” In our own era, writer David Whyte quotes Brother David Steindl-Rast, who said, “The antidote to exhaustion is not necessarily rest. The antidote to exhaustion is wholeheartedness.” Good work, I’ll suggest, is wholeheartedness. It’s the idea of “bringing your whole self to work.” It’s about approaching work and life as art, or music, or poetry. It’s about infusing—and seeing—beauty in all we do.

If John O’Donohue was correct (and I believe he is) that we are caught up in a crisis of ugliness, bad work would be one of the worst offenders. Yes, “work gets done” and people get paid (which is better certainly than nothing getting done and people having no jobs) but the human spirit and all that comes from it is diminished in the process. It’s like strip mining for the soul. When we are stuck in bad work, as Brother Steindl-Rast said, “A good half of what you do here in this organization has nothing to do with your true powers, or the place you have reached in your life. You are only half here, and half here will kill you after a while.” As I wrote in the Introduction to Zingerman’s Guide to Good Leading, Part 2:

Bad work is almost always exhausting; people finish it feeling physically and emotionally drained: doing less bad work is only slightly less exhausting than doing more. Bad work, to use a technical term, just plain sucks. I don’t want to do it, and I don’t want anyone else to have to do it either. Bad work is about people being treated as if they have nothing insightful to offer, as if they know next to nothing, or are “too stupid to understand upper-level activity.” Bad work is about people being regularly managed in ways that are at best disrespectful and, at worst, downright abusive. It’s about people going to work every day in settings that aren’t in sync with their values—going “into the closet” when you go to work is a hard way to go.

Part of what put this into my mind right now is reading David Graeber’s book Bullshit Jobs. Graeber was an anarchist and an anthropologist. We never met, though I’ve learned a lot from his work. Sadly, he died at the age of 59 this past September. His book on Debt, as well as his writing on consensus and collaborative cultures have all been quite interesting and insightful for me. Bullshit Jobs, his last book, is about the idea that modern Western economies are loaded up (or maybe I should say “bloated up”) with “bullshit jobs”—jobs that really have no point and don’t do much other than provide paychecks and evidence of economic expenditure. Graeber demonstrates quite clearly how these sorts of meaningless jobs are built into the routines of big companies, academia, and governments. Graeber wonders: Why do organizations spend money they say they don’t have? And why do people who have those jobs—who are often, Graeber shows, pretty well paid—put up with them? I don’t have the answers. I have friends who fit this bill. But it made me wonder why in presidential election campaigns (or in any political campaign) does the quality of work never come up? People propose ways to create more jobs but never talk about the quality of the work that will be created. Or improving the quality of the jobs that already exist. It’s as if we’re measuring only how to serve more meals without even questioning whether the meal might be a Big Mac or a Zingerman’s Reuben. It kind of matters, doesn’t it? While getting any meal is clearly better than having none, given a choice to create one kind or the other, wouldn’t it better to offer something enriching and enlivening?

On a scale of 0 to 10, bad work is a 6 or below. We tolerate it because we have bills to pay and families to feed, but not too many people would recommend it. (See Secret #19, “Fixing the Energy Crisis in the American Workplace” for more on this.) Ten years after Wendell Berry wrote about bad work, Stephen Gill (the nationally-known expert on training who passed away earlier this year) reported that things hadn’t changed much. Steve said in most American workplaces:

Minds are not fully engaged and not effective. People who are bored, tired, overworked, not challenged, and disengaged are underperforming. About a third of U.S. employees find their work engaging, which hasn’t changed much over the past few years. This means that two-thirds are probably not learning what their company needs them to learn. . . . As a result, the Corporate IQ will not grow, and the organization will not get smarter. Companies need to focus on the relationship between empowering people and improving employee engagement, satisfaction, and performance.

Bad work has long been accepted as the norm. And yet, I would argue, as business writer Gary Hamel said, “None of this is OK, not by a long shot.” Most American businesses, he says, create jobs that are dehumanizing. “Our organizations,” Hamel adds, “are less adaptable, less creative and less inspiring. In other words, less human, than we are. And it’s getting worse.” And, he challenges us all: “Unless we’re willing to be similarly honest and forthright, we’re part of the problem, not the solution. But before challenging others, we need to challenge ourselves.” I agree. Why dwell in the darkness when we know darned well we can do better? Positive action towards a higher purpose begets energy that slowly but surely improves our collective ecosystems.

If we make incremental improvement to that bad work, we can move to the middle of the continuum and get what I would call “good jobs.” A “good job” is what I had 39 years ago, before I left my kitchen manager position to end up opening the Deli with Paul four and half months after I gave my two-months’ notice. The work was perfectly fine; people were pretty pleasant. A 7.5 on a scale of 0 to 10—maybe an 8. I got paid ok, but I got tired of it. We can, by creating good work, do better.

How do we do it? Ultimately, it’s my strong belief that when we work in harmony with nature—in this case, human nature, as outlined in the “Natural Laws of Business”—we move meaningfully towards good work. In doing so we can create workplaces that honor the unique capabilities and creativity of every single person we hire; when we embrace that the healthiest ecosystems in nature are the most diverse, and do our best to replicate the natural diversity in what we do and who we do it with every day; when we bring beauty into every single action; when we make dignity and grace into the ways we work every day, then we have the chance to take things to the next level. When we do that, we create good work. And when we make good work, we can change the world.

There’s a section in the Introduction to Zingerman’s Guide to Good Leading, Part 2 that talks about good work. I read it to audiences fairly regularly when I teach:

Good work is life altering, fulfilling, and fun. Good work is about learning, laughing, growing, all the while earning enough money to make your dreams come true. It’s about collaborating with people you care about and who share your values, contributing something positive to the people and the community around you. It’s fun, not something you flee from. It’s a place you want to be, even if you rightfully have other places you want to go. Good work is about positive energy—both feeling it and building it. Good work is about doing something you believe in, work that you care about in a workplace that cares about you. It’s endlessly sustainable, not energy-sapping. While people might certainly, on any given day, go home tired after doing good work, they’re rarely spiritually exhausted. When we’re into what we’re doing, giving it everything we’ve got, learning and laughing even under duress, the experience is likely to be energizing, even if, in the moment, physically tiring.

At its upper reaches, good work can be one of the most rewarding things one ever engages in. If we build our business in sustainable ways; if we treat everyone with respect regardless of title, background, race, religion, or resume; if we encourage people to be themselves and help them get there; if we work to bring out the best in everyone; if we convey to people how much difference their work actually makes and then simultaneously teach them how to make a difference in the way that their workplace is run; if we keep everyone learning and laughing; if we work the numbers so that everyone wins from a financial standpoint . . . then we create very good work. When we get good work right, we make a reality of Emma Goldman’s once radical and, at the time, seemingly fantastical belief in “ . . . the freest possible expression of all the latent powers of the individual . . . (which is) only possible in a state of society where man is free to choose the mode of work, the conditions of work, and the freedom to work. One to whom the making of a table, the building of a house, or the tilling of the soil, is what the painting is to the artist and the discovery to the scientist—the result of inspiration, of intense longing, and deep interest in work as a creative force.”

I can hardly read this without tearing up. Hearing the words, even silently in my head, my own energy and passion are lifted. It almost always gets very positive response. It’s what I want from my work. Whether the “work” is in a business, an academic or religious institution, a not-for-profit, or a school system, I think it’s likely what every human being would like. People can argue about politics, but I don’t think anyone is actively looking for bad work. Good work is what most people want at home, and it’s what we want from our personal and professional relationships. It’s true for professors and parents, prep cooks, pipefitters, and poets alike.

Please understand. I’m not trying to suggest that we have this good work thing down pat here at Zingerman’s. None of us will achieve perfection—we can only push towards it and recover with grace when we fall short. There are a thousand things at Zingerman’s that I know we need to do better, and ten times that many that have never crossed my mind. The point is we’re trying. Our heads and our hearts are in the right place and, imperfectly, we’re working hard to make good work a reality. We’re not, I know, alone. There are many organizations, many leaders, all over the world, who have bought into this idea. And who, in their own wonderful ways, are working hard to make fulfilling, enriching, engaging good work their reality as well.

Ultimately, good work happens when we have made what we do every day into our art. Artists who believe in their work are more grounded. Their energy is more engaged. They focus more on their own creative design, rather than raking others over the communal coals. As Stephen Pressfield’s book, The War of Art. He says: “Individuals who are realized in their own lives almost never criticize others. If they speak at all, it is to offer encouragement.” The more good work we create the calmer, creative and collaborative our communities can be. Bringing out the beauty, advancing the artist, supporting the spirit and sustaining the creativity of our coworkers . . . all the while still paying the bills for the business and for everyone who’s a part of it . . . is, in my mind, our challenge. Servant Leadership dictates that we dedicate ourselves to designing and making organizations that make good work the expectation. And even when we fail and fall short (which we will all do) we can watch “game film” and get ourselves going back in the right direction.

How do we do it? The books in the Guide to Good Leading series are, basically, “how-to” handbooks to help you make that new way to work a reality. Since I wrote Part 2, there are a couple dozen more “Secrets” in the series, more ways that I/we keep learning to do a better job of creating good work. There are plenty of other resources too. It’s what most of the anarchists I’m drawn to—such as Gustav Landauer and Emma Goldman—were advocating. It’s what people like Peter Block, Margaret Wheatley, adrienne maree brown, Jacqueline Novogratz, Peter Koestenbaum, Gary Hamel, and others are writing books about. When we create good work, everyone comes out ahead. Neil Gaimon said, “Everybody has ideas. People daydream constantly, people let their minds go walking.” As Servant Leaders we have an obligation to help make that happen through the art that is our business. Because as the poet Amiri Baraka once said, “The artist’s role is to raise the consciousness of the people. To make them understand life, the world and themselves more completely.”

What are the take-aways of all this?   

  • Although anxiety and skepticism in hard times can easily override optimism, it’s still true that everyone I talk to would at least want to be able to have good work.
  • While there’s no magical cure for bad work, we don’t need to wait for Washington. 
  • The more good work we create, folks will likely not want to settle for anything less.
  • While there’s no way to just convert all work instantly into good work, we can work hard to increase the frequency with which it happens. We can get to work on this right now. 
  • Working to create good work is—if one can manage the stress of trying to make positive change happen—is, in itself, good work.

Even in a pandemic we have the power to make the changes right here, right now. In his preface to E. F. Schumacher’s Good Work, his colleague George McRobie writes,

Schumacher would invariably get asked by someone, often overwhelmed, in the audience, “But what can I do?” His simple answer was “Do three things, one after the other, one leading into the other. . . . Start where you are. But start. Don’t wait for the perfect situation.”

Schumacher is, I believe, thinking about small steps towards dignity, honoring nature, building positive beliefs, appreciation, purpose, vision, positive energy, engagement, leadership mindsets, humility, teaching and using open book management, honoring everyone for who they are, a chance to get involved and make a big difference every day, meaningful work. Stuff like consensusstaff partners, a way for anyone to lead change . . . all make a positive contribution to the cause. It will still be imperfect, but it’s progress. If I do three things a day, by the end of a year that’s over 1000 small things I’ve done to improve the richness of our organizational ecosystem. If you have 10 colleagues, that’s 10,000. If you have 100 people working in your organization, that’s 100,000 contributions to the cause of good work this year alone. In the process, economies improve, people eat better, communities are more vibrant, and people are kinder to each other and to themselves.

Will it work? I believe, from the bottom of my heart: Yes! Each time we put effort into enhancing and advancing good work, bringing beauty into the workplace, dedicating ourselves to dignity and bringing out the artist in everyone we know, good things are sure to have come of it. Love, kindness, and creativity can become the order of the day. As John O’Donohue said: “If you send out goodness from yourself, or if you share that which is happy or good within you, it will all come back to you multiplied ten thousand times. In the kingdom of love there is no competition; there is no possessiveness or control. The more love you give away, the more love you will have.”

P.S. If the leader you know would rather read in short bursts, we have a collection of all the Secret Pamphlets in the series.

P.P.S. We also decided to create a Good Work Leadership Pamphlet Pack: “12 Natural Laws of Business,” “Servant Leadership,” “Stewardship,” and “Going into Business with Emma Goldman”—plus a print out of the Good Work Introduction from Part 2

*** This post is an excerpt from Ari’s Top 5, a weekly newsletter from Ari himself. Sign up to receive Ari’s Top 5 here!

ZingPosium is back!June 15-16, 2023

Attend our annual leadership symposium!

Get fresh perspectives and practical takeaways on how to be a thoughtful, inclusive leader in an increasingly complex world.