When I first started my PhD in 2004 (after years of working in insurance and running a small business), my aim was to understand why my experience of work had been rather disappointing. This is not to say that I did not enjoy the company of my bosses and co-workers, because on most occasions I did. Rather, the work-a-day world seemed something of a strange dream in which an activity that is so much a part of our lives is, for most of us, something we simply tolerate or find acceptable.
Such a dilemma is often referred to in terms of “job satisfaction”, which should not be mistaken for the idea that one’s work is in some profound sense fulfilling. Why?
There is a worry that in merely being satisfied with a job, one is setting the bar quite low. In theory, I could be satisfied with a job that I don’t particularly like doing because it pays the bills and allows me free time to do what I want. Doing a job becomes a form of compensation so I can do other things.
This may not seem so bad, but it can mean spending a great deal of one’s time not developing as a person.
Lately, a lot more is being said about personal development and work. Concerns range from employers realizing that their employees need more than a paycheck to the recently unemployed (due to the pandemic) experiencing a loss of a sense of identity and worth.
Philosophers often capture this issue under the title “meaningful work”. In this blog, I want to emphasize why personal development, as an aspect of meaningful work, is important for employers to consider if they genuinely care about their employees. Humans are not just a resource. They are humans . . . who love, live, breathe, and desire happiness.
Discovering More about Oneself
In a recent discussion with analysts from Quorsus, which is a small, high-end financial consulting firm, I had the opportunity to explore a range of issues relating to meaningful work. Key to Quorsus’s culture is the aim of helping its employees achieve their potential.
There were six discussants who either had just started or had been working with the company for several months. Experience levels varied from recently having finished an undergraduate degree to having worked at other companies in a similar role.
We spent the first hour discussing practical matters and inched our way to a topic I couldn’t help introducing . . . personal development. To get things started I threw out the question:
“Do you think your work makes you a better person?”
The meaning of “better person” was left open to interpretation so as to invite each analyst to get a sense of how their work connected with other aspects of their lives. Art, sport, hobbies, volunteering, relationships, and so on.
There is one response on which I would like to focus because I think it really makes the case for taking seriously the nurturing of personal development in the workplace.
The analyst in question is a business solutions consultant who helps organizations adapt to technological, financial, and environmental demands. Much of what she does requires wearing several hats, from working with different levels of employees to adjusting to distinct managing styles and personalities.
You might think that given what her job demands, she would be outgoing and gregarious. But she described herself as being introverted and having social anxieties. So how has she been so successful?
She noted that being in an organisation that understands and supports her as a person has helped her to face her fears. Forms of support include a sense of positive reinforcement—the sense of not wanting to let the team down or having a team member motivate her while also respecting her limits. She found this environment invaluable because the work dynamics are so difficult to replicate in her personal life, where she would tend to react in a completely different way to similar challenges.
Her testimony cannot be over-estimated.
I am sure many of us have seen how a bad working environment brings out the worst in oneself or in one’s co-workers. In my own experience, I have seen academic departments (not my own!) become factionalized due to self-important and petty concerns.
Vicious behavior cultivates vicious people. And those who are trying to get their foot in the door can be led to think that they have to act the same way if they want to succeed. Call this vicious conformity, where one conforms to a system of bad practices and values that are inevitably self-defeating.
But let’s focus on the positive – virtuous development.
Roles at Work, Not Regimen
When the analyst gave her account of how her work was crucial in helping her develop as a person, it struck me that the one way work enables us to do this is through inviting us to play roles.
The work we do often involves roles we have to assume. As an academic philosopher, for example, my roles involve being a teacher, a leader (as head of department), adviser (with students), a good citizen (collegiality).
It is often that when we take such roles sincerely, we enter into a mode of play in which we see ourselves as another person (not completely, obviously). We get to play a role in which we can embody certain traits, qualities . . . and virtues. We can in fact be the kind of person we want to be despite any hang-ups or anxieties we might normally have.
What is more, there can be a gravity to such roles because others depend on oneself to perform one’s role. I see this each year when new teachers find themselves able to overcome anxieties about speaking because their students are relying on them to learn. It can be liberating . . . gravity can lead to grace . . .
But only if a virtuous organization supports the kind of personal development that makes for more capable and better persons. I don’t have the space here to explain exactly what I mean by a virtuous organization.
Instead, I want to conclude my attempt to persuade business owners to care about their employees’ development with a reversal. Where one would normally expect such a plea as mine to cite things like an increase in profit or productivity, I want to say this way of thinking, even if true and persuasive, is confused—the tail wagging the dog.
The more capable, well-rounded person is exactly the candidate whom most businesses want to hire in the first instance. Good employees are not the means to business success; on the contrary, they are in fact what are presupposed or necessary for starting a business at all.
The difference is subtle, yet significant. Seeing employees as a means to an end inevitably creates a culture in which practices and tasks treat and reinforce people as merely means. And this is vicious. Yet beginning with the idea of a business as requiring the best people and nurturing them along the way starts the culture on a different level—a virtuous level.
And, of course, clients, customers, prospective employees, and the public will take heed of this. This is because we tend to want to be a part of something that is good for others as opposed to vicious. The English philosopher John Stuart Mill referred to this as a natural human sentiment. But as natural, Mill also understood it was not automatic. It needs to be cultivated.
Work is a significant part of our lives. Is it too ambitious to think work culture ought to cultivate things other than profit?
I would like to thank the analysts with whom I spoke for giving me the opportunity to have such an enlightening and enjoyable discussion.
Todd Mei is Senior Lecturer and Head of Philosophy at the University of Kent. He runs the public philosophy website philosophy2U.com and is a keen windsurfer and recovering rock climber.