Navigating a Crisis of Purpose
“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.”
Rita Mae Brown
Mantras are the stories we tell ourselves to make sense of our world. To bookend our experiences in ways that add meaning, and offer comfort.
In 2021, a year unlike any we had known before, our prevailing mantras are centred on resilience, and about emerging from a global pandemic battered and bruised, but also, somehow, fortified.
Stronger. More agile. More adaptable. Future fit.
But are we?
As comforting as these mantras are, have we really embraced a better way of doing and, critically, a better way of being? Or are we poised to repeat many of the patterns and mistakes that rendered us so devastatingly vulnerable in 2020?
“I’ve learnt that people don’t know as much as they think they do,” Warren Buffet warned recently. “But … the pandemic could be seen coming, and this is not the worst that can be imagined …. It doesn’t seem like it’s something that society is fully prepared to deal with.”
Buffet is hardly alone. His stark warning is being echoed, with growing intensity, by scientists and health experts around the world, whose steady drum beat of concern is fast accelerating into a cacophony of global consensus: Further calamities are on their way.
Just what form these pandemics will take – whether they will emerge as a result of zoonotic pathogens, shrinking natural habitats or biological warfare – remains to be seen. What is clear, however, is that future crises, like previous ones, will almost certainly be by our own hand.
Our earth is retaliating.
Abused, exhausted and exploited, she is retreating into protection mode. Protection from us. Protection from our looting, our materialism and our malfeasance. From mindless, relentless slaughter and extraction. But mostly, from our unadulterated greed.
We installed ourselves as both master and marshal of our planet’s resources, and set out, with chilling efficiency, to extract as much from her as we possibly could, with little or no regard for impact or consequence.
Something had to give. It did. And it will again.
The question, then, as we navigate the second half of 2021, is not whether there will be future global crises – there will – but rather how we will choose and prepare to respond to them. As a continent, as a country and as a community. But also, critically, as people leaders and organisations.
The pandemic caught many businesses on the back foot, and left them there, because our stewardship of our people has so often mirrored the same dysfunctional model that has informed our stewardship of our planet.
A model predicated not on sustainability, but on maximum extraction, with the focus squarely on getting the most out of people, as opposed to putting more into them. Of getting them to DO more, rather than inspiring them to BE more.
Human potential vs human resources
Our language and naming conventions reflect this. The people who have built our organisations, and who are the greatest contributors to their success, are mere “resources”. A finite means to an end.
Consequently, we have Human Resource departments. Structures geared almost exclusively to optimising output. To getting people to work harder, for longer, and to achieve more, with less.
Instead of seeing our people for who and what they are – infinite, unlimited potential and possibility – we have reduced them to resources who can be deployed, and redeployed; whose contributions are measured most often not in value, but in output and in time, to be structured and organised according to organisational needs.
And always in service of a single stakeholder: the shareholder.
The inevitable result of this nihilistic model has been record-high levels of burnout, disengagement and mental health issues. Research confirms this. Data reported by Forbes, and others, suggests a perfect storm of insalubrity.
• 68% of all employees are disengaged, or actively disengaged, at work.
• 52% report suffering from burnout.
• Less than half of employees think their leaders truly care about work-life balance.
• Two in three workers say workplace stress is resulting in poor sleep and wellness regimes.
• Over 40% are contemplating a major career move as a direct result of the pandemic.
Future fit? Not even close.
Turns out, many of our people are limping into a post-pandemic era demoralised, undermotivated and battling a looming crisis of purpose. Not only because they have lived through a global pandemic. Because they have lived through a global pandemic that exposed the absurdity and, ultimately, the unsustainability of a status quo that puts profit before people, and output before purpose.
A status quo that fails to see them, heard them or value them, as whole human beings.
Where to from here?
Stepping up as worthy stewards of our planet will require us to abandon many of our most firmly held ideas about commodifying our resources. Similarly, stepping up as worthy stewards of our people require us to abandon workplace paradigms of control and extraction, and replacing them with new thinking about purpose and value.
This thinking understands that far from being finite resources to be marshalled and mined, people operate at their peak when we see them not as human resources, but unlimited human potential.
As Daniel Pink reminded us: “The secret of high performance is the deeply human need to direct our own lives, to learn and create new things and to do better by ourselves and our world.”
For this to happen, however, our people must benefit from leadership that creates the context, the environment and the psychological safety to show up authentically, to find their passion, to pursue meaning and purpose, and to contribute to something greater than themselves.
As people leaders, our call to action has never been more urgent:
We have to acknowledge that the status quo, centred on serving the shareholder, not the stakeholder, and getting more out of people, as opposed to putting more into them, is fundamentally broken.
And we have to be brave enough to replace this broken, outdated model it with a new, human-centric mindset that puts the whole person first. Always.
We need a new social contract – the human deal posited by Gartner – that pivots around deeper connections, radical flexibility, personal growth, holistic well-being and shared purpose.
Then – and only then – will we be able to truly test-drive our mantras of agile and future-fit.
Yours in performance,