Last Sunday, I spoke at TEDxUofW. It was hands down the most difficult public speaking experience of my life to-date. Normally, I like to be in front of a microphone, and I enjoy distilling things into short talks or other pieces. This time, I made it so much harder.
I wanted very much to distill my work into a single ten-minute speech. People keep asking how I do what I do, what it really is, and why I am so passionate about it. As someone who used to define herself as a professional communicator, I am frustrated to discover that I still cannot do this.
Instead, I’d like to break it down into some component parts that may be more effective than a one-size-fits-all talk.
Today, I’ll start with the basics: the infrastructure of the modern workplace. Work does so much more than take up time and energy in our lives. It shapes how we behave outside of work. It can even shape who we are in the world.
Let me use an example. A few days ago, I spoke with a reporter from Crosscut about an upcoming campaign by the Seattle Department of Transportation to encourage behavior change among commuters. If the viaduct crumbles, traffic in parts of the city is going to get even worse – quickly – and we will all need to adjust quickly. That can mean working odd hours. It can mean switching to bus or bike. Whatever people choose, the goal is the same. We need to get cars off the road.
While I fully support efforts to educate people and encourage them to make better choices, this is not a marketing problem. It’s an infrastructure problem. If employers expect everyone to work from 8:00 or 9:00 am to somewhere between 5:00 and 6:00 pm, we will always have a rush hour. If adequate public transit infrastructure is not in place, people will continue to drive. If there is not enough housing located close to work, cycling and walking will be available only to a select few people. And if we don’t consider the needs of working families with children who must attend school or daycare within certain hours, we will see fewer people choose to have children and more demand for two-car garages by those who do.
People are pretty brilliant. We naturally optimize for our own well-being within the constraints of the world around us. Since I run my own schedule, I have been able to manage my commute however serves me best, including by avoiding peak bus times. I also just moved to a place much closer to the other places I need to go during the day. I’ve wanted to be here for a while, but I needed to reach a certain level of revenue before a move to my new neighborhood was feasible. I live a nearly car-free lifestyle and could not be happier – possible only because I am able to run my life in the way that works for me.
In order for a campaign like this one to work, employers have to be on board. They need to allow employees to manage their schedules however works best for them. If they want people to cycle to work, they need to provide showers and other infrastructure. They need to provide childcare and other amenities for working parents. They need to trust their staff to work remotely or split their time between home and office, based on whatever works best for them as human beings. And that, in the modern framework, is a tall order.
Somewhere on the path to corporate citizenship, we began treating corporations as very powerful individuals themselves rather than what they truly are: frameworks that allow large numbers of people to collaborate toward particular goals. Rather than relying on the self-motivation of those people to do that work and reach those goals, the modern corporation is a beast of punishment. It is an engine that runs on carrots and sticks.
Bonuses and other incentives mask terrible work environments in a papier-mache layer of money; contracts and penalties keep people dragging themselves to their desks solely for fear of what will happen to their ability to survive if they leave. A relatively absent social safety net links all of us to our employers in a relationship of perceived total dependency, and a culture that penalizes unemployment keeps people from leaving even toxic relationships until they have found another employer whose arms they can leap into.
Here’s the thing: It doesn’t have to be that way.
I should clarify: I am for companies. I am for corporations. I am immensely proud to share a city with corporations such as Microsoft and Starbucks that lift up the community and use their power to improve people’s lives. I hope one day to grow my own work up into an organization that can do similar things for the world.
However, when it comes to the way companies treat labor, I see tremendous room for improvement. There’s that old adage: “We asked for labor, and people came.” Many companies have responded to this by trying to make people less like people and more like machines (money in –> productivity out). I think we can respond to it by trying to make labor more human.
In my TEDx talk, I described several projects I have executed solely by tapping into people’s intrinsic motivations. Every time I have put on a massive collaborative project, I have done so from a place of zero authority. I had no formal authority over other sections of the U.S. Embassy in Poland when I put together the New Media/New Democracy Forum. I was not in charge of other agencies, other countries’ embassies, or the local organizations who partnered with us in Afghanistan for the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence. I certainly had no hard power over the team and partners that came together for Hack to End Homelessness. In order to get anything done, I had to adapt the structure of the work to accommodate what people wanted to do and how they wanted to do it.
In each case, the results were phenomenal – far better than any work I ever got done thanks to being able to tell underlings what to do. This shaped me as a manager. I view management, including project management, as a role equal to all the others. I may provide the hub of the enterprise, but without the support of each and every spoke, I cannot form a wheel. Using this approach, I have been able to do meaningful work in a meaningful way – without ever having to incentivize people with money. In fact, when I have introduced money into these initiatives, that’s precisely the moment when their energy begin to slip away.*
Science backs me up on this. I often refer people to Dan Pink’s phenomenal TED talk, “The Puzzle of Motivation,” for a summary of what we know about what motivates people. The gist of it is this: fear, most often triggered through competition, is a finite source of motivation. It can push people for a short amount of time to perform very basic tasks.
To unlock the creativity that is required for solving complex problems, however, people need to be liberated from fear. Competition doesn’t work. Punishments don’t work. Even prizes don’t work. People need the space to explore their own creative capacity and think expansively about what they want from the world.
Which brings me back to labor. In the current structure of work, it is difficult if at all possible for most people to tap into that creative energy. As a result, employees can only do what they are told, with diminishing value on their time the longer they do it. It is no wonder that people burn out so quickly – even when, like me, they absolutely love the work they are supposed to be doing.
Working in an inhumane bureaucracy is like putting a glass jar over a burning candle and then wondering why the flame goes out (or worse, blaming the candle itself).
The candle is still there. It works beautifully. The wick wants nothing more than to burn. It loves the work it was made to do in the world.
Yet instead of lifting up the jar, we keep lighting new matches. Employers try the same old tricks of carrots and sticks. We rely on brief respites – weekends, brief vacations, and increasingly, sabbaticals – to keep up our self-esteem, but it never works for long. We design projects that give us little bursts of oxygen so we can keep going and still get recognition for being who we used to be. Eventually, gasping for air within these tight containers, we lose touch with who we really are. Even if we do get the courage to leave, it can take years for us to rediscover our passions and re-ignite our flame in a way we can sustain.
My work in the world is to prove that it’s okay for all of us – parents, children, teachers, employers, and government bureaucrats – to lift the jar. The structure of work should empower humans, not try to turn them into machines. (That’s what the machines are for, anyway.) We can give people time, space, and tools to rediscover who they are. Then, we can honor who they are by asking them to do the work they love in the way that works for them. When we do this, my friends, we will have an infinite well of energy and creativity with which to make life better for everyone. When we replace fear with love, there is no problem in the world we cannot solve.
But I’m not waiting for the powerful bureaucracies to change. I weaseled my way out from under the jar, and over the last couple of years, I have rediscovered what lights my fire. I encourage everyone else in the world to do the same. Then and only then will labor be forced to become human again.
* That does not mean I do not pay people or ensure they are otherwise being compensated for their contributions. People cannot offer their gifts if their basic needs are not being met, and the way we meet those needs in our society is with money. I firmly believe that we need to find better ways as a society to pay people to build the things we need – releasing ourselves from structures of ownership and intellectual property – but that’s for another time.