A fascinating and only slightly bad-tempered argument between two scientists on BBC Radio 4 and a visit to Happy Ltd for an event with WorldBlu last week, prompted me to write this post. In it, I will massively over-simplify some of the most complex topics in genome mapping and consider love and freedom and their impacts on workplace effectiveness. Firstly, a couple of facts I learned from some reading after the radio debate of which I had not previously been aware:
1. A significant percentage of human DNA has no known useful function. (The non-useful portion being colloquially known as Junk DNA. The proportion of Junk DNA in the human genome is the subject of often heated debate.)
2. The genome of an onion is over 5 times the size of the human genome (17GB vs 3GB)
One of the illustrative examples cited during the radio discussion was the human heart. The (mechanical) function of the heart is to pump blood. A by-product of the mechanical process is that the heart produces a sound, the heartbeat. The beat however is not seen as the heart’s function. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but something about the idea of the uselessness of the heartbeat made me uncomfortable. I hope it’s like the Higgs Bosun particle in reverse, in that the existence of the thing is known and its function or effect on the universe is yet to be established. That the heartbeat can be heard is of course a simple yet mighty useful way of establishing whether the mechanical function is operating as it should. Amongst other things, arrythmia and the presence of an unborn child can be detected. The quickening pulse in the presence of a loved one reminds us of the vitality of romantic desire. Much that is written and spoken about love in all its forms centres on the heart.
Love is an observable phenomenon. And yet a universal definition of love has been difficult to establish and philosophy and science have struggled to pin down its essential function. If we struggle to understand the very nature of love itself, how then can we talk of love when it comes to work, especially given that love often drives people to act irrationally?
There are many quotations that put love in the context of work. Some are worth repeating here:
Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life – Confucius
Follow your bliss and the universe will open doors for you where there were only walls – Joseph Campbell
The only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle – Steve Jobs
Work is love made visible – Kahlil Gibran
Exhortations to entrants to the world of work to follow their passion may actually serve to be unhelpful, as this article from Forbes points out and I think its fair to say that for many people, doing what you love as work is always going to be a pipe dream. However, doing what work you do with love and care counterbalances having to spend your days doing something its hard to be passionate about. A shelf-stacker who engages shoppers in friendly banter and with helpful advice is one simple example. I now love what I do in a way I’ve never experienced or thought possible before, but it doesn’t make me any more passionate about the drudgery of spreadsheet work that managing my love as a properly functioning business entails. An appreciation that there will always be tensions between passion and routine often feature in accounts of long-lived marriages and relationships. A similar appreciation is needed if we are to have a sustainable and lasting relationship with our work.
For many, the experience of work is one in which oppression features heavily. Our most valued personal relationships, with the people we love, are not based on oppression but on freedom and choice. If love has any chance of flourishing in the context of work, we must find ways to let freedom in. Despite enthusiastic reporting of the benefits of enlightened workplace practices, we are a long way from breaking down the traditional, hierarchical, command and control structures on which most businesses operate. Many leaders of all hues, whether in business or in politics, are frozen by fear – fear of devolving responsibility and accountability; fear of becoming irrelevant; fear of markets; fear of exposure; fear of intangible concepts such as love at work. Even when embracing change, we quickly see leaders try to re-establish controlling structures to keep fear in check. Policies or rules about the use of social media are but one example.
The history of scientific and philosophical thinking has shown that whilst we might not understand the nature of a thing itself, we can observe the impacts it has in the real world. Fear or cynicism about love and freedom at work is becoming an evolutionary dead end in business. The financial crisis which we are currently living through has arguably shown that many of the structures on which our societies are founded are irretrievably broken and our expectations have shifted accordingly. Expectations of the workforce have also shifted and continue to do so. Businesses that flourish will be those who thoughtfully introduce principles that allow for their employees freedom and choice over when, where and how work is done. The new leaders who will inspire this brave new world will be those who see the truth in and act upon another quotation on love:
If you love someone, set them free. If they come back they’re yours; if they don’t they never were – Richard Bach