Dave Ulrich is, without question, an HR guru: as with any guru, it’s difficult to know whether to approach them on bended knee or with a degree of trepidation. Having read “The Why of Work”, the best approach is with an open mind, a small pinch of salt – and with sufficient time to take on board what Ulrich (writing with his wife, Wendy, a psychologist) has to say. There is much of immense value here, and much that has the potential to enable leaders and organisations to generate immense value in more than one sense for themselves (and, importantly, both their customers and their shareholders). Like many of the best books in the ‘how to manage business better’ arena, my biggest qualm is that those who stand to gain most from reading it are those least likely to read it.

Having recently finished its 263 pages, I had one other reservation: the writers are wise and experienced enough to know that their essential message – providing and encouraging the unearthing of meaning, a sense of purpose, connectedness, value and hope in people’s working lives not only enriches the working experience but boosts both organisational performance and profitability – is simple in neither reality nor in implementation. Although the conventions of the business blockbuster are respected – breaking down their quest (and that intended for their readers) into ‘the seven questions that drive abundance’ – the book, quite rightly, covers a very wide area of ground. Although they are clear that implementing their tools, models and practices requires time and effort, this is not a book whose content – or conversational style – offers a ‘quick fix’, as illustrated in one extract:

Dave realized that sustained change did not come through emotive weekends but through institutionalized HR practices around recruitment, promotion, development, compensation, communication, and organization design. When these systems are changed, organization capabilities emerged that outlasted any single event or leader.”

What the book does offer – at least to the leader who wants to embed sustained change rather then depending on a ‘hit and run’ approach that may ultimately deliver little, and is more interested in leaving a legacy to others than a monument to themselves – is much of eminently practical help. The range of change assessment and diagnostic tools included in the book are a valuable ‘add on’ to what is currently out there in the leading and implementing change arena.

We can contend that much of the basic idea is not new: the importance of a sense of purpose beyond sheer profitability is territory that Charles Handy, for example, covered in the 1990s. It can be traced back at least as far as William Morris, who wrote the undeniably Utopian News from Nowhere as long as 1890, proposing a society in which work should be a source of pleasure or personal value.) In far less erudite circles, a Canadian band (Max Webster) sang in 1976 that “’ Cause you can only drive down Main street so many times/And a million vacations is what you’ve got in mind”: pause to consider how many people’s working days that still sums up and the song’s wit loses a little of its charm.

But the Ulrichs’ position this message firmly in the here and now, in an era of a growing acceptance and understanding of the critical importance of the employee value proposition, the personal factors that influence or motivate individual workers (and the recognition that money may not be the chief amongst them). It’s also a book rich in optimism, not least in the choice of the word ‘abundance’ to typify the kind of organisation and working environment and atmosphere that they seek to encourage.

In an era where ‘cuts’ and ‘austerity’ are very much words of the moment to the UK reader, I’m not sure how much this choice of language will help the book to reach those they are most seeking to address. (The book also reads to the UK reader as being rooted in American social culture, where local church group and voluntary activity possibly plays a larger part in more people’s lives and value systems).

To use a parallel I didn’t spot in the book, work is one of those (excluding currently those who find themselves without it) unavoidable elements of life like eating. We have to do, but our lives are richer when it’s a pleasure – when the ingredients are chosen with care, treated well and the company in which we share the experience is enjoyable. In parallel with The Why of Work, I was reading a novel (Muriel Barbery’s “The Gourmet) about a dying food critic remembering the great meals of his life. For a grounded example of the kind of meaning the Ulrichs apply to ‘abundance’, the following seemed to sum it up for me:

I was Ali Baba. The cave of treasures: this was it, the perfect rhythm, the shimmering harmony between portions, each one exquisite unto itself, but verging on the sublime by virtue of the strict, ritual procession. […] The sweet bell peppers, unctuous and fresh, softened my taste buds already subjugated by the virile rigour of the meat, and prepared them for the next powerful assault. Everything was there in abundance.”

Not just dinner, but food in which both cook and diner found real pleasure. For the reader – and leader – who engages with the Ulrichs’ message and imperatives, there is much here to chew on. Understanding the signature strengths and motivating categories of purpose for individual employees and acting to match them to best opportunities and positions within the organisation where they drive not just personal performance, but customer satisfaction (and thereby retention and thereby profitability) is a rich meal in itself, but – for a leader committed to acting on it – opens implications for the organisation’s employee value proposition, its approach to line management and more over to recruitment. Recruitment that focuses on skills and past achievements overlooks personal motivations, passions and what gives a sense of purpose to the potential recruit – all of which may indicate not just the potential contribution that could be made -in an organisation open to the concept of creative contributions, of course.  

Here, however, is another potential barrier to the reader: just as the book would benefit from an opening section that clearly addresses those who ‘don’t get it’, it would in places benefit from taking its own advice on the value of being open to possible objections. Recruitment that factors in personal passions is a laudable aim, but in the current job market with too may chasing too few opportunities, it’s an approach that may encourage insincerity in applicants already finding it hard enough to find work at all, let alone meaningful work. In another section that cites the Harvard MBA Oath as evidence of the changes in motivational factors in today’s business graduates (a topic we’ve previously covered), the criticisms levelled at the MBA Oath are not mentioned let alone countered or developed.

Although the depth of content here is both new and laudable, the long history of respected writers lamenting the lack of value, meaning and purpose that too many of us find in our work suggests that their words have yet to influence a significant percentage of us, which would suggest that a more vigorous approach to those amongst us who are more a part of the problem than of the solution might deliver dividends. (I was reminded at several points of Michael Foley’s The Age of Absurdity – reviewed recently – which made argument that modern practices are increasingly counter-productive to satisfaction, pleasure and meaning. Perhaps the case for meaning needs to be made not just in more depth – see also our review of Richard Sennett’s The Craftsman – but with more force.)

In researching this review, it became evident that even those that might find much that they agree with in much of the book – one example is the Work Foundation – can have qualms about ‘Ulrich as guru’. In a book that offers much of real value (although it would benefit from shortening and better organisation of its content), the pessimist in me wondered how effective it will prove in changing the working environment for those who need that change most. The biggest obstacles to that change are the types of leader and manager that were best summed up by Margaret Thatcher’s quote:

Being powerful is like being a lady. If you have to tell people you are, you aren’t.”

I also found it hard to escape the real significance of those whose response to the book and its imperatives will be the four highlighted in the book itself: ‘criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling’. HR Managers who ‘get it’ and who have not just their Boards’ ear, but their support (along with time and budgets) will find enormous inspiration here: many HR Departments may find something closer to frustration in recognising what might – and should – be achieved. To cite one brief quote from the book will always take words out of context (a more powerful sense would be conveyed by inserting several more adjectives into the first half of this sentence), but those with the most to learn from this are probably a close fit to the following grouping:

Leaders who are shaming, critical or grumpy may evoke a lot of action, but not necessarily a lot of learning or real productivity.”

While the occasional glibness of some of the book has surfaced in accompanying interviews – my immediate personal reaction to the closing answer in one at Bnet was that it would take more than cookies to turn around a dismal working experience – there was, however, one quote that I thought illuminated the failings of the types of practice that the Ulrichs hope to help banish. The interview was with Management Consulting News, where one question and answer ran as follows:

McLaughlin: On the flip side, if an employee wants more meaningful work but has skeptical or resistant leaders, what can that person do?

Ulrich: An employee has three choices: Exit, loyalty, and voice. You could leave. But many people don’t have the option of quitting.

Another choice is loyalty. You just shut off your brain and put in your time. The danger is that, over time, shutting off your brain kills creativity and you end up going through the motions — kind of retired on the job.

The third way is to voice your opinion and find a way to make leaders see that a different management style will help them get what they want. Whether the goal is financial profits or increased productivity, passionate employees can help them get there. That’s not an easy sell, but when leaders get it, they will be able to attract and retain the best employees.

The ability to see work through your employee’s eyes is not small part of this book’s mission and lesson. Overcoming my own pessimism, I’d hope any employer reading that quote above would recognise that at least two of those options are as dismal and bleak for them as for the employee. The choice presented is, in fact, no choice at all.

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