The Danish existentialist philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, once proclaimed that “we live forward, but we understand backward. Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forward”. Such thought-provoking aphorisms are just one example of how a discipline which has its origins dating back to over 2000 years ago can still offer foresight into the future. However, despite laying claim to be the oldest discipline in the world and providing the epistemological framework for academia – the influence of philosophy in society has waned in recent times. In 2010, for example, the late Professor Hawking declared that scientists rather than philosophers “have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge”[i]. The decline in philosophy’s significance as a method of inquiry is reflected in the statistics too, with figures from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences showing the number of people obtaining philosophy degrees has fallen by 8.7% since 2012[ii].
Despite diminishing interest in the discipline, the increased importance of human skills in the age of automation and technological advancements means there is a strong argument to be made for the recrudescence of philosophy within all spheres of society, and none more so than within the corporate sphere. With this in mind, I thought it would be interesting to explore what the wisdom from some of the greatest philosophers in history can tell us about some of the main themes that are shaping the future of work.
The Stoics and remaining calm in times of accelerated change
It is widely acknowledged within the future of work community that two of the main characteristics that define modern work are volatility and uncertainty. The notion of a lifelong career is seemingly redundant; while there seems to be little consensus on the extent to which technological advancements will threaten the existence of jobs. Thus, to begin this voyage into the relationship between philosophy and the world of work, it seems appropriate to start by exploring the ideas of a group of Athenian scholars who became known as ‘The Stoics’. Widely regarded as the founding fathers of practical philosophy, central to their belief system is the idea that regardless of how unpredictable the world can be, by using our minds correctly we can always be in control of our emotions and impulses, no matter how overwhelming they might be. This mindset is commonly referred to as ‘stoic calm’.
Embracing the virtues of ‘stoicism’ in the modern corporate world unlocks tremendous benefits for organisations experiencing profound change. For instance, a ‘stoic’ individual would show greater resilience to any changes brought about by macro forces such as technological disruption, as they would in theory express a greater willingness to acquiring the skills needed to overcome the challenges such forces present. Similarly, they would be accepting of the fact that the traditional three-stage model of education, work and retirement was obsolescent. Indeed, the stoic individual is one who acknowledges that the only constant in life is change and is therefore also equipped with the emotional skills required to effectively cope with acute forms of disruption.
To this end, stoicism differs from most existing branches of philosophy in one important sense: its purpose is a practical application that can harness the cognitive skills needed for modern work, and as such, it is not a purely intellectual enterprise. Instead, it’s a tool that we can use to become better in our craft, establish more meaningful relationships with colleagues and business partners also allowing us to pragmatically navigate any fundamental disruptions in the labour market. Thus, despite being over 2,000 years old, it is a mindset that, if adopted correctly, could equip modern workers with the mental clarity and resilience required to thrive and prosper in this period of uncertain and accelerated change.
Aristotle, being virtuous and organisational ethics
Keeping with the theme of Athenian scholars, Aristotle, a man regarded as one of the most influential of all philosophers, and his concept of ‘virtuous ethics’, can help provide clarity on the ethical decisions organisations need to make in the future. In essence, Aristotle believed that the framework for being a virtuous person simply consisted of being a good person, and not being a slave to one’s lowest impulses. With recent revelations such as the ‘Cambridge Analytica’ Facebook data scandal, the moral fibre of organisations is under great scrutiny and an adoption of virtuous ethics as a framework can help provide organisations with the necessary moral guidance to make ethically sound decisions.
The concept of ‘virtuous ethics’ not only provides a strong moral framework for organisations to abide by, but it also enables people to fulfil their potential and improve their overall well-being. With recent data indicating that 58% do not trust their colleagues[iii], and 7 out of 10 people not trusting their HR department[iv]; living more virtuously offers a set of ideals that can help galvanise people while simultaneously healing fractured relationships and lead to greater cohesion within organisations.
Nietzsche the Übermensch and high-performance
At first glance, the often misanthropic and pessimistic rhetoric of another great philosopher – Nietzsche has no place in the context of optimising performance. But dig deeper into his philosophy and it becomes clear that the ‘future of high performance’ can learn a lot from his musings. Notably, the concept of the ‘Übermensch’ – translated into English as the ‘Superman’ offers a unique philosophy for how to optimise performance and unlock potential.
For Nietzsche, the idea of Übermensch was more like a vision than a theory; a vision whereby one is emboldened to find the necessary inner strength to overcome any personal insecurities and embrace fear and uncertainty, rather than run away from it. With research demonstrating that creating a space of psychological safety is pivotal for organisations looking to unleash their creative potential; following the principles of Nietzsche’s Übermensch and believing that failure is a necessary stage in the path to fulfilment, can help lay the foundations for people to experiment without fear and come back stronger if they fail.
Perhaps in these increasingly uncertain times when disruptive technology raises profound questions about the skills humans will need to prosper in the future, revisiting the most ancient of disciplines can, in a somewhat paradoxical sense, offer a strong foundation for the cultivation of the uniquely human skills needed to effectively navigate accelerated periods of change. Indeed, to quote Steve Jobs – “technology alone is not enough, it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with humanities that yield the results that make our hearts sing.”
If you would like to discuss further how teaching philosophy can prepare you for the future of work, then please contact Marvin at firstname.lastname@example.org.
When we meet people, we often think that we can tell a lot about them by the occupation they have. “So, what do you do?” is probably the most common icebreaker I hear, as our work is often regarded as shorthand for explaining to people who we are.[i] But our work identity is not our only identity.
No one person has a single identity; we all have talents, interests, relationships with others, causes we’re passionate about and worldviews that help to make us who we are. In order to embrace our authentic selves throughout our careers, the question researchers are now asking is how to balance the multiple identities that we have. But, after exploring agile people strategies here at Hot Spots Movement, what I think we should be asking is how to integrate them.[ii]
We are increasingly moving away from the 9-5, from which people can clock off and assume their out-of-office identity. With technology enabling a 24/7 culture and people demanding flexible, agile ways of working, our work and our personal lives are becoming more and more interwoven. Instead of allowing our work to monopolise our time and become the core part of our identity (something psychologists call “work-role centrality”) or viewing our work as something that begins and ends and is entirely separate from other aspects of our lives, integrating our identities enables us to be our authentic selves at all times, living and working according to our values and passions.[iii]
The rise in thinking about work-life integration focuses on scheduling time to disconnect and break away from our desks at multiple points throughout the day to ensure that we are maintaining our vitality and sustaining our productivity. Perhaps this can be as easy as using our lunch breaks more effectively, for example, to go to the gym, attend a lecture or catch up on that tv episode you missed. It might be leaving work early to make sure you have dinner with your family or friends and making up that time at home later on.
To fully integrate our work-life identities, we should consider how to reignite or reinforce our connection with work. Instead of perceiving work as something we have to switch off from, how can we make work more meaningful and more aligned with our other identities?
Firstly, we can seek out new projects. When current work isn’t stimulating, we should find new ways to feed our intellectual curiosity. Seeking new challenges and a greater variety within our working day may help us to gain a whole new perspective on what work means to us and what really holds our interest. Similarly, pursuing new skills that we’re passionate about mastering or gain new knowledge on a topic we’ve always been interested in can raise both our engagement and sense of purpose at work.[iv]
Expanding our networks and meeting diverse people can introduce us not only to potential new friends but to potential new futures for ourselves, as these connections may be able to offer advice and guidance as we forge new career paths. Attending external conferences, lectures and events, or reaching out to colleagues from different internal functions are simple ways to integrate our work with our other interests.
To stop your work identity from becoming your only identity, find ways to integrate and align your work with your passions, interests and talents. To talk more about our identities at work, drop me an email at email@example.com
[i] Al Gini, ‘Work, Identity and Self: How We Are Formed by the Work We Do’ (1998).
I recently returned from running our annual Workshop in Sydney. Alongside trying to find the best flat white in the city and dealing with jetlag, I was able to hear more about what is on the minds of our Australia based clients. At our workshop we discussed why companies need to build a narrative on the future of work, and how to build a future-proofed culture amongst other topics. There were three major takeaways for organisations that came out for me around the workshop.
- Think about your narrative
Despite increasing digital disruption and the rise of AI and analytics, organisations need to ensure they don’t forget the social aspects of change, and the power of stories over straight facts or data. Research has shown that stories impact people’s brains differently to facts, causing more connections in the brain and leading to closer relationships between the storyteller and the listener. People use stories as a way of understanding the world and this is particularly true when it comes to the future of work. Employees are looking to employers to provide a sense of stability and purpose in a rapidly changing world. Organisations therefore need to reflect on their own narrative on the future, thinking about what it will mean to work in their company and how work will be done in the future. Where are your non-negotiables? Where are you going to take a bet and what will stay the same? In considering questions such as these, companies can provide their workers with a story about where they are going, and how they will be supported along this journey.
- Abandon assumptions around aging
The importance of not relying on stereotypes and assumptions around aging also came out strongly in the Workshop. Longer working lives mean that organisations cannot make assumptions around the needs and desires of their workforce, particularly older workers. No longer is it always the case that a worker in their 60s is looking to retire, for example. Organisations need to make sure that their practices and processes are not based on erroneous expectations. They need to rethink the way they approach retirement, or what it means to progress in the organisation, so that people are not penalised if they want to downgrade their working hours without losing status in the organisation.
- Identify your influencers
Finally, the need to think about the cultural influencers in organisations was another important point. Rather than relying on hierarchical leaders, companies need to uncover the real influencers and work with them to drive cultural change. These influencers can be discovered through network analysis or crowdsourced conversations but should be brought in early on in the process to ensure the behavioural change so crucial so a successful culture shift.
It was great to hear from our members in Sydney, and we look forward to our next trip Down Under!
During my final year at University, students were approached by counsellors about taking lessons in mindfulness in order to help us cope with the stress of final year. Initially, I dismissed it as another one of those health fads claiming to be a panacea for all modern ills, but after hearing about the benefits from other friends, I decided to do some research. Mindfulness can be described as a way to focus one’s awareness on the present, so that you are more conscious of what you are doing in that moment. Essentially, it is a way to re-programme one’s mind to think in less stressful ways. Admittedly, as quite an anxious person, this resonated with me, and so now I try to incorporate mindfulness into my everyday life, and since starting here at Hot Spots Movement, I have been interested in how mindfulness could be transferred into my working life, and how it can help workers to be less stressed and ultimately more productive.
Over the past decade, research into mindfulness has exploded, with thousands of studies being conducted into its possible potential. The latest neuroscience studies are predominantly what transformed this practice from an ancient Buddhist concept into an exercise adopted by celebrities, businesses, politicians and the NHS. In 2007, scientists discovered that there are two different networks in our brain, two different ways we interact with the world: the default network and the direct experience network. The direct experience network is activated when you are being mindful; not thinking about the past, the future or about other people. It is argued that this way of thinking allows you to get closer to the reality of an event, making you more flexible and relaxed in the decisions you make.
Some of the world’s biggest companies such as Google, Facebook and interestingly, our Future of Work Consortium member KPMG are paying attention to these studies and are now offering mindfulness or meditation programmes as a way to make their employees happier and less stressed. For example, Chade-Meng Tan, a Google pioneer completely revolutionised Google through introducing the ground-breaking ‘Search Inside Yourself’ mindfulness programme to all employees. Perhaps this approach to wellbeing is one of the reasons why Google is consistently rated as the world’s best employer. Similarly, CEO Mark Bertolini completely reshaped the culture of Aetna when he joined in 2010, drawing on his experience of mindfulness, which helped him through a time of intense depression after a life-threatening skiing incident. He introduced free yoga and meditation classes to all employees, with those participating reporting on average a 28% reduction in their stress levels and a 20% improvement in sleep quality. Since Bertolini took over as CEO, Aetna’s stock increased threefold. The New York Times wrote an interesting article on this case study, finding that Aetna’s employees each gained an average of 62 minutes per week of productivity, which Aetna estimates is worth $3,000 per employee per year.
Another motivation behind introducing mindfulness into the workplace has been the immense pressure that workers are under today. According to the City Mental Health Alliance, 50% of long-term absences are accounted for by such stress, accumulating to 70 million sick days. More poignantly for employers, stress causes losses of £26 billion a year for the UK alone, and so it is no surprise that the leading innovative businesses have embraced mindfulness, in the hope that it will reflect in not only employees’ wellbeing, but also in productivity levels, and ultimately in profits.
I believe that introducing mindfulness into an organisation is a step in the right direction. Research may still not be able to unequivocally say that practicing mindfulness increases productivity, however the results of neuroscience studies are impressive and the case studies such as those of Google and Aetna show it is definitely worth investing in.
If you’d like to find out more about the benefits of mindfulness at work, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Applying for jobs can be a nerve-wracking experience, as competition is high and a step toward to your career goals hangs in the balance. My assumption was that all candidates shared this same trepidation, but research from 2014 has revealed that men are far less cautious than women in this regard and will tend to apply for a role if they meet around 60% of the job requirements, whereas women will only apply if they meet 100% of them.[i] Why does this disparity exist, and why aren’t more women applying for roles within their reach?
One argument is that the language used within job adverts themselves dissuades certain genders from applying. For example, women are more likely to be deterred by adverts requesting individuals able to ‘manage’ rather than ‘develop’ teams, whereas men tend to prefer jobs requesting ‘competitive’ rather than ‘supportive’ candidates. Words such as these, imbued with gender connotations, are surprisingly prevalent. The technology company, Textio carried out research in 2016 to flag gendered language and found that the average job advert contains twice as many ‘masculine’ phrases as ‘feminine’ ones.[ii] A similar study by recruitment services company, Total Jobs discovered that, within the 77,000 job adverts included in their study, 478,175 words carried gender bias; an average of six male-coded or female-coded words per advert.[iii] The use of gendered language can pose a significant problem, as it can signal to potential candidates that they don’t – and won’t – belong.
Simple alterations can make a huge difference. Atlassian, an Australian software company, hired 80% more women into technical roles within two years by changing the wording of its job adverts, demonstrating the extensive effect of language.[iv] Paying close attention to the language used will be critical for companies wanting to grow the size of their talent pool, as ZipRecruiter proved when it discovered that gender neutral adverts receive up to 42% more applications than more biased ones.[v]
And yet, there are some points of contention that arise when asking organisations to change their wording. Firstly, in some cases, specific words are necessary. For example, positions in investment banking demand a level of competition and fearlessness, and failing to include these elements in a job description may mean that a new employee is unprepared for the realities of the role. Secondly, changing the language in adverts does not attempt to address the underlying social issues concerning why certain characteristics are perceived as either masculine or feminine in the first place. Removing gendered words from job descriptions does not necessarily remove the biases associated with them. However, despite these concerns, crafting gender neutral job adverts is an expression of a firm’s commitment to inclusion; and this must be seen as a step in the right direction.
Some state that the 60%/100% disparity is not evidence of a language problem but of a “confidence gap” between men and women.[vi] They argue that women are less confident in their own abilities, whereas men are more self-assured and tend to take a more “cavalier” approach to applications.[vii] This may be true of certain individuals but it seems both unfair and unlikely to assume that all men and women fit this stereotype. In fact, researchers at the Harvard Business Review have dubbed the confidence gap a “myth”, suggesting that women are not deterred from job applications because they lack confidence but because they do not want to waste time and energy applying to a role they are not adequately equipped to perform.[viii] Which instead raises the question: why are men applying for jobs that they aren’t qualified for? And, do the men that start in these roles find themselves out of their depth? Maybe. Maybe not. Perhaps what this disparity actually shows is that more men have simply seen these job adverts for what they really are: wish lists.
A lack of female applicants signals the need for a wider change in how job adverts are understood.
Lengthy bullet-pointed lists of job requirements can trick applicants into thinking that each point is vital when, in reality, recruiters write lists of ideal attributes rather than strict, unyielding lists of absolute necessities. Limiting the number of words in your job adverts will make it far easier for candidates to realise that they meet the requirements, while also reducing the risk of including gendered language. As more people feel both able and inspired to apply, recruiters may find that individuals with transferrable skills can bring something unexpected to the organisation and take the role in a new and exciting direction. Furthermore, recent research on job descriptions has shown that providing people with a rigid list of tasks does not encourage them to push boundaries and innovate. Looser listings encourage opportunities for creativity and demonstrate that your organisation has space for people to be ambitious and to craft their own work and career path.[ix] Let all of your applicants feel 100% ready to take on a role they can help to shape.
To talk more about inclusion at work, drop me an email at email@example.com.
In his 1994 book, ‘The Age of Diminishing Expectations’ Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman, perspicaciously argued that ‘productivity isn’t everything, but in the long run it is almost everything’.[i] When one considers that productivity is perhaps the main driver in an economy’s ability to grow and therefore also the greatest predictor of the standard of living for a given person or group of people, it is difficult to disagree with Krugman’s contention.
In essence, productivity is defined as output per hour worked. In recent years, however, within the developed world productivity levels have been lagging. To elaborate, the recent ‘Skills and Employment Survey’ highlighted that in the UK, labour productivity has historically grown by around 2% per year since the 1970s, but since the 2008-2009 recession it has stagnated and has failed to climb back to its prerecession growth rate.[ii] This unprecedented and unexplained slump has become known as the ‘productivity puzzle’ and is an issue that has caused widespread concern amongst economists, business leaders and governments within the developed world.
As productivity levels continue to stagnate, organisations are implementing AI solutions which are reminiscent of Charlie Brooker’s superb dystopian TV show ‘Black Mirror’ to help boost productivity levels. Amazon, for example has recently patented a wristband that tracks the hand movements of warehouse workers and uses vibrations to nudge them into being more productive. Veriato, a software firm, is able to track and log every keystroke employees make on their computers in order to measure how dedicated they are to their role and the company.[iii] In Helsinki, a digital innovation consultancy named ‘Futurice’ has installed sensors that can track an employee’s every move in the office, even in the toilet.[iv] Such technologies fall under the remit of what experts call the internet of things (IoT). Employees report mixed feelings about these new technologies, with a Harvard Business Review study revealing an approximate 50/50 split between those who believe AI technology enhances productivity and those who either disagree or feel its impact is neutral.[v]
The appeal of using advanced AI from the organisation’s perspective is clear and, although surveillance at work is not a new concept (factory workers have long clocked in and out), the scale to which certain AI technologies can now be used to monitor the productivity of the workforce is leading some commentators to suggest they are bordering on Orwellian. This inevitably raises acute philosophical questions about the ethical underpinnings of applied AI in the workplace. Indeed, just how far are organisations willing to go in the pursuit of productivity? Finding the balance between safeguarding basic privacy, workers’ rights and enhanced productivity will raise some moral dilemmas for organisations, and will no doubt become central to AI discourse in the coming years.
Finding this equilibrium will not be an easy task for organisations. A recent RSA report on the ethics of AI suggests there is a public perception that we may be surrendering too much power to AI technology.[vi] One thorny issue is that existing ethical frameworks are often incompatible with the world of technology. Science has attempted to develop ethical frameworks before – from Asimov’s Three Laws for Robots to Nick Bostrom’s work on ethics. Adhering to these frameworks can be problematic, as humans often find it difficult to develop virtues for their own conduct, let alone build relevant virtues into new technologies.[vii] The debate around ethical AI must also consider how certain workers are better equipped than others to prevent employers going too far. For example, those with a specialist, in demand skill-set stand a greater chance of resisting any unethical implementation of AI, whereas those in insecure forms of employment such as zero-hours contract workers in low-wage industries, have considerably less leverage.
In the current economic climate, solving the productivity puzzle is an alluring prize for organisations. However, if organisations wish to solve it using certain AI, it must be conscientiously executed with a strong injection of humanity to help ensure workers can retain a sense of dignity in their work during this period of accelerated and uncertain change.
[i] Krugman, P. (1994) The Age of Diminishing Expectations. Cambridge, MIT Press
[iii] The Economist (2018) AI in the Workplace
[iv] Burke, C (2016) In offices of the future, sensors may track your every move – even in the bathroom (The Guardian)
[vi] Balaram, B (2018) The Ethics of Ceding More Power To Machines (RSA)
[vii] Dalmia, V. Sharma, K. (2018) The Moral Dilemmas of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (World Economic Forum)
Last month I was lucky enough to watch a presentation by Professor Dan Cable of London Business School, talking about a concept called Learned Helplessness and how it is affecting performance at work. Learned Helplessness is a psychological theory initially developed by Martin Seligman in the 1960’s and can be seen in many different aspects of our daily lives. The theory states that in the face of aversive stimuli, which an organism is unable to escape from, the organism will eventually accept the loss of control and give up trying to avoid the pain.
We see this in real life, more so than we are potentially aware of. Weight loss programmes are a great example. Working as an ex-swimming coach I’ve seen dozens of people decide to lose weight and pick up a new exercise regime or diet expecting instant results. When these results don’t come immediately they give up and try a different one, and another and another, eventually reaching a point of learned helplessness where they accept that they can never lose weight and give up trying.
Another example occurred at the World Cup with the Spanish football team. Spain, a footballing giant and a favourite for many to lift the trophy, sacked their manager just two days before the beginning of the tournament. What resulted from this was an embarrassment for a proud footballing nation, Spain were knocked out, in the Round of 16, by minnows Russia. Now there are many factors at play, but one suggested was that many footballers (not just Spanish ones) are so dependent on their managers direction that they’re unable to think for themselves. The Spanish team had five world cup winners in their midst, almost 60 top-tier domestic titles between them all and combined almost 950 international caps. These professionals had the experience to play with any manager, no matter who they were, yet they felt helpless to think for themselves.
So, as a professional, why is this important for you? Well there’s evidence to suggest that many employers are inadvertently creating an environment of Learned Helplessness. Employees are put to task doing mundane repetitive jobs and they lose the ability to engage their brain’s “seeking system” which we use to explore our environment and most importantly experiment and learn new things. And it’s not just repetitive tasks that can foster Learned Helplessness. Many organisations have a culture of “zero-tolerance” to failure. It’s long been known that when workers feel anxious or afraid they no longer receive the physiological reward for being creative or curious, meaning organisations are missing out on those innovative ideas that could make all the difference.
But what can you do about it? How can you ensure your employees are constantly looking to innovate, be creative and learn new things and not in a state of Learned Helplessness? Well through our work here at Hot Spots Movement, there are a couple of ways which we find to be extremely effective in encouraging innovation:
- Ensure Psychological Safety
A common cause of Learned Helplessness in the workplace is a fear of the repercussions of failure and a perception that it is unwise to challenge the status quo. People must feel able to try new things and potentially fail. Google’s approach to this is well documented, with 10% of their people’s time dedicated to working on high risk, potential high reward projects, where failure is seen as a perfectly acceptable outcome for pushing the boundary. Further to this, employees should be comfortable challenging the norm and challenging leaders (within reason) as well. Just because “we’ve always done it that way”, doesn’t mean that it’s the right way and you should be encouraging your people to ask “why?”
- Encourage an Appetite for Learning
We’ve been banging the drum on this point here at Hot Spots for a little while now. “Good Work” is work that allows you to learn new things. As Dan Cable says, you must ensure your employees’ “Seeking Systems” are engaged to ensure they don’t just go through the motions at work, feeling powerless to change course or experiment. Instead, organisations must create an environment in which people seek to learn new things and where you aid them in developing skills and requirements for the future, not just the now.
- Demonstrate results
Finally, Learned Helplessness can easily result if people speak up about a new idea only to have it fall on deaf ears. If you really want your employees to be proactive, take on new challenges and elevate performance, then you need to visibly act on their suggestions or, at the very least, acknowledge the idea and explain what will happen next. It only takes a couple of instances of an employee’s idea being disregarded before Learned Helplessness sets in.
So, what’s the key message for you and your team? Consider the dynamic in your organisation: are people proactive in tackling challenges and crafting a way forward? Or is there a sense of inertia, suggesting a culture of Learned Helplessness? Spot this early and start making the small changes that enable your people to feel back in control.
If you’d like to find out more about how to prevent Learned Helplessness and how you can create a culture of learning and innovation within your organisation, then please don’t hesitate to reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org