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Peeling the Un-ion: Modern work should be about the creation of meaning

Updated: Mar 14, 2023

By Malaika Cheney-Coker

Aside from the lure of work-from-home privileges and higher salaries offered up as reason for the Great Resignation, there is another, more esoteric interpretation – that it is also a quest for more meaningful work. But just as the bright, brittle skin of the onion, once flaked off, yields more to discover, there is more to be gained from the meditative moment offered by the Great Recession and other pandemic-era ruptures. Indeed, the Great Resignation is only one indicator that the nature of work, beyond being more meaningful to the workers, should place greater emphasis on the creation of meaning.

Today’s paradigm of work as the very embodiment of productivity, is well established. Indeed, one of the most dominant economic metrics continues to be labor productivity— the conversion of inputs (in this case labor) to outputs (goods and services). The metric of labor productivity is a product of the Industrial Revolution and its ensuing paradigms of organization-as-machine. If in the age of mechanistic wonder, machines could, in spectacularly linear fashion, suck in inputs, twirl them through their precisely configured entrails, and deliver consistently similar products, then so too could organizations and industries take in inputs, including people, and deliver quantifiable products and services.

Even if one were to upgrade the metaphor to say, the computing age, while computers may change their operating systems, their function is primarily productive and task oriented. They are servile to the needs which we humans define (I’ll leave futuristic scenarios of computers taking over for another day).

The disservice the machine metaphor does is that it ignores the meaning-making imperative, something which is not easily quantifiable. Meaning-making has been always important as an ongoing sensemaking of human experience; it is now increasingly so with artificial intelligence (AI) poised to take over complex analytic and generative tasks long considered to be the province of the human brain.

Whereas an emphasis on productivity requires only that we produce, the very human longing for meaning entails that we can question why we should produce, to what end, and at what cost (e.g., Do we need more innovations on products that will quickly end up in landfills? How do the arts and culture enliven us and how should their value be measured?).

If the cluster of pandemic-related, environmental, and racial seismic disturbances of the past few years have taught us anything, it is that disruption demands new ways of making meaning of the world. Whether though re-evaluating our relationship with nature; with each other as race-defined societies both clashing and co-creating; as dreamers both embracing and recoiling from the possibilities of technology; or as citizens navigating the shifting roles of private, public and civic spheres, the task of paradigm shifting is all around us.

This paradigm shifting requires the “uns,” verbs of contrary action required to peel back the layers of our proverbial onion: The time and space to undo – to unwind the clockwork of some deeds in order to prevent further harm; to unlearn – to let go of what we have been taught. And one of my favorites: to un-strategize – to embrace a purposeful wandering over the jagged landscape of uncertain global and local trends.

In embracing the ‘uns,’ in peeling back the accretion of doing and believing, we allow for new meanings and actions to crystallize. This concept is well captured in Otto Scharmer’s organizational learning construct Theory U, which describes a near-mystical approach of letting go, in order for future possibilities to emerge. Of course, we can simply replace old dysfunctional paradigms with new dysfunctional paradigms – or paradigms that will inevitably outlive their utility. But the ‘uns’ provide us the chance at a fresh start.

Orienting work towards meaning-making is both simple and dizzyingly hard, and is also tainted with elitism. It is hard to imagine the scope for ruminations on the purpose of the industry in the work of a barista, gig-worker, or other blue-collar worker – though I’d argue that there is. It requires little more, to get started, than creating safe havens in the organizational life for reflection and sensemaking. As with the sanctuary offered by prayer and meditation rooms in airports, any organization and industry can create an invitation for meaning-making, provided that the right kinds of questions are asked and psychological safety is provided. With a mediocre 36% of employees in the U.S. and 20% worldwide engaged in their work, they have little to lose and much to gain.

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