Peter Drucker spent his career finding ways to maximize human endeavor. He was both fascinated and propelled by what humans could do collectively at scale. He wanted us to be as efficient as possible. He also wanted management to lead in ways that made people as gratified by their contributions as possible. As he curated management through technological advances, he was cautious about relying too heavily on machines as surrogates for humans. He’s known for saying, “The computer is a moron.” My hunch is that he meant nothing can replace the fired-up soul of humans pursuing the greatness within them.
Today, the tensions between human and technical ingenuity are tightening as the lines between them are blurring. When we see the magnificent advances in artificial intelligence, and the impact they have on fields like medical science, is it the technological breakthroughs we stand in awe of, or the human genius behind them? Some days, it’s hard to know.
Today, finding meaning and purpose at work stands as one of the greatest pursuits of the workforce, and one of management’s greatest challenges to fulfill. Some researchers suggest that 50% of those in the workforce lack a sense of meaning and purpose. Which may well be behind the statistic we’ve all heard for years, that nearly 70% of the workforce remains disengaged.
In our hunger for meaning and purpose, we may well be over indexing on individuality as a source of that meaning. To contain our fear of being eclipsed, or replaced, by sweeping technological changes, many have stressed “individual branding” and self-promotion as one way to avoid extinction. The irony is, most of our large organizational systems neuter individuality through standardized performance measurement systems, policies that strictly direct how respect must be shown toward fellow employees, and by cultures that homogenize the workforce, becoming 50 shades of beige instead of bright collective bursts of many colors.
Our attempts to diminish individuality have intensified our hunger for it.
But the one thing technology will never be able to replace is our capacity to co-create. Further, some of our greatest sense of purpose can be found not within ourselves, but in the shared space of joining efforts to create something we could never create on our own. Research proves that people feel more connected their work, and to others, when they feel part of a team working toward a common purpose.
In an age of hyper-technological advances, managers must be vigilant about fostering shared meaning within their organizations, not by neutralizing individuality, but by harnessing it into a greater coalition of co-creation. Here are three ways managers can foster a greater sense of collective ingenuity and purpose.
Honor me and we. As humans, we’re hard-wired with both the innate desire to stand apart as “me,” and the deep longing for intimate connection to a greater “we.” These needs often feel contradictory, especially when one person’s need for “me” collides with another’s need for “we.” Managers should legitimize both longings with careful exploration of how those on their team seek to meet their “me” and “we” needs. Knowing how to orchestrate coalition among your team prevents veering too far to either extreme, where you have a homogenized group of frustrated people whose individuality feels squelched, or a group of maverick individuals who can’t blend their efforts toward a unified, greater result.
Encourage full ranges of emotional expression. Our workplaces often feel void of, sometimes even discouraging of, emotional expression. To keep things “professional,” we often imply that showing feelings of ecstatic delight after an achievement, or angry frustration from a setback, are akin to an “unprofessional” loss of control. This narrowing range of emotion comes with an important hidden cost managers may fail to appreciate. When people limit what they feel, they also limit their imagination. Of course, we can’t have people leaping off desks when they’ve aced a project, or throwing staplers at each other when they are angry. But there’s far more room for wider ranges of emotional expression than we’ve allowed people to explore.
My friend’s son expressed this poignantly at a recent competition for his school’s robotics club. His team was one of two finalists awaiting to hear where they placed. His son turned to my friend and whispered, “I bet none of those robot’s hands are sweaty like mine. And whichever team wins, their robot still won’t be able to high-five them afterwards.” Our capacity to feel deeply, and to share those feelings with trusted colleagues, is what makes us beautifully human, and fuels our greatest ingenuity.
Cultivate shared creativity. Nourishing creativity takes careful work. Creativity is actually rooted in a social experience, not a cognitive one. It’s meant to be done in community. Understanding the delicate nature of cultivating creative talent raises a managers odds that her team will bring their most creative ideas, take risks with new approaches, and be open to having their minds changed when other’s ideas prevail. Establishing clear expectations for collective creativity helps teams anticipate their managers push for collaborative effort without doubting their individual creativity is well regarded.
Human ingenuity at scale is one of the world’s greatest innovations. Cultivating a greater sense of shared purpose within that ingenuity is today’s manager’s greatest challenge, and greatest opportunity. Unleashing that shared purpose is where tomorrow’s greatest technical advances awaits.
Ron is co-founder and managing partner at Navalent, working with CEOs and executives pursuing transformational change for their organizations, leaders, and industries. He has a thirty year track record helping executives tackle challenges of strategy, organization and leadership. He is the best-selling author of 8 books, including the recent Amazon #1 Rising to Power. He is a regular contributor to the Harvard Business Review and Forbes, and a two-time TEDx speaker.
About the Author:
Ron Carucci, Managing Partner, Navalent; HBR & Forbes Contributor, 2x TED, bestselling author Rising to Power
This article first appeared in the Drucker Forum Series on Linkedin Pulse.