This article nearly made my head explode. Here’s the nickel version: David Graeber, an Anthropologist at the London School of Economics, asserts that many, many jobs people do today are “bullshit.” (I’m going to try and minimize the swearing here). He says such a job is one where, were it eliminated, it really wouldn’t matter. A lot of middle management jobs are like that, he asserts. The same is true, he says, for corporate lawyers, brand-managers, and telemarketers, among others. Further, these people are miserable. Not only are their jobs unnecessary, they know they’re unnecessary, and they’re miserable because of it. They have no sense of meaningfully contributing.
Well I call… BOGUS! I read this almost immediately after leading a talk with a group of business executives about workforce engagement. During the talk, I did bring up the fact that there are a lot of people in the workforce who would say, “my job doesn’t matter.” I put the question to them, “Do you ever create a job that, from your perspective, doesn’t matter.” They looked at my like I was crazy. Why would you even ask that? was what the look on their faces told me.
Here’s where I think Dr. Graeber’s hypothesis breaks down. Going only what I read in the interview, his method seemed to constitute asking people if the job they have matters and then taking their word for it that they’re right. From a behavioral psychologists perspective, it isn’t that people have jobs that don’t matter, it’s that they have the experience that their jobs don’t matter. They look at the work they do for the organization and don’t see the difference it makes. That middle-managers (or people who do jobs where the contribution is difficult to measure) would report this is no accident. They don’t always feel like they’re directly impacting, first, their department and, second, the organization. When people can’t see the impact they’re making of course they’re going to feel like they’re not making a difference!! That is not a good feeling.
If you’re not interested in a massive societal overhaul (as Dr. Graeber is), here are some things you can implement organizationally that will eliminate the BS without eliminating any jobs.
Everyone should have performance metrics. For middle management, these should be easy. Look at what the people accountable to them are producing and measure them on their team’s production. If you’re dealing with someone like a brand-manager (where things are tougher to measure), make part of their job developing ways of capturing the impact of their efforts. Do customers experience the brand-promise? Is your brand known in the market? Now, you’ll probably get some resistance if you say, “I want you to figure out how to measure the difference your job makes.” Don’t say that. But if you go to someone knowing what difference you want the job to make with the question, “what can we develop that will capture that impact?” you’ve just given someone a meaningful project that will make a difference for the organization.
Review those metrics regularly. This is where things often break down. People have metrics but they’re not reviewed until things get bad or annually. But the business has numbers coming in all of the time! Going back to the first point, if managers are accountable for the results their teams produce, make sure you are reviewing their people’s metrics with them. If you’ve given someone a project to explore new ways of measuring, review with them what they’re learning. And don’t wait until they’re done and presenting their findings to the broader team. Sit with them and review their thinking regularly until project completion. Regular review will let them know that what they’re doing matters to you and the company.
Review metrics over time. Another common mistake is to only review current measures. But part of a healthy business or good employee is growth! How do this month’s numbers compare with the last three and the same time last year? When you look at metrics over time it presences the fact that business and the employee are headed somewhere. Things that matter show progress. Mark that progress.
Make sure you’re doing “heads up” reviews too. I like to say there are two types of performance reviews. There are “Heads down,” where you review the results that the team and individual produced. In a “heads up” review, the focus is on the level up from the employee. If their job does matter, their performance impacted the unit, department, and organization. Show them those results! I promise you most people will appreciate it. I used to organize and host comedy shows in small towns in Nevada. My partner and I would find a location (usually a bar) with a stage and sound setup, book talent, and then promote the show. I did it because it made me a little extra money and gave me a chance to perform, but at the end of the night I was always interested in how the owner did. That was my best measure of how our promotion efforts worked and I wanted to know. As people, we generally care about the bigger difference we’re making and knowing that we make a bigger difference makes a difference.
This is a short list. There’s a lot more you can do to let people know that their jobs matter, and when they have that experience, it will be good news for you. First, your people will be happier. They’ll stick around longer, use less sick-time, and be more pleasant to be around. But there’s a business case too. When people see their work makes a difference they get more interested in making that difference and they’ll get busy making it.