In April I had the pleasure of meeting Arthur Woods (@ArthurWoods), a co-founder of Imperative, who was in Minneapolis to speak at a couple of our events, including our annual HR Tomorrow conference. Imperative emphasizes working with purpose—creating a measure of purpose, identifying the importance of purpose, and helping companies facilitate purpose. In his presentation, Arthur eloquently articulated the meaning of purpose (“Purpose is something that we gain daily from relationships, doing something greater than ourselves, and from personal and professional growth”), and documented the value and importance of purposeful workers.
At the end of this stimulating and important presentation I commented that the only thing missing from his presentation was a picture of Karl Marx. It’s common to popularly associate Marx with communism, but first and foremost Marx was a profound social theorist of work whose concern with workers’ suffering led him to seek a more humane society. He thought that the commodification of work under capitalism leads to the loss of one’s essential humanness, a loss that Marx labeled “alienation.” In his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, Marx identified four ways in which workers are alienated under capitalism:
- Individuals are divorced from the product of their labor—the business owns and controls what the workers produce.
- Since business owners control how things are made, workers surrender control of their actions to someone else.
- Creative work is seen as an essential feature of being human so #1 and #2 deprive humans of their essential nature.
- Because people relate to each other through their work, they are alienated from each other.
If we set aside the fact that Marx’s alienation is inherent in capitalism and is not a subjective feeling of job dissatisfaction or a result of undesirable job characteristics, in important ways the dimensions of alienation match Imperative’s emphasis on the importance of relationships, autonomy, and personal meaning in work. I think this is important because it reinforces the gravity of these issues, even if there are important differences.
Imperative’s business case for organizations to embrace the importance of working with purpose is that purposeful workers are better workers. Since it is a business enterprise itself, I understand why Imperative makes this case. But there is an unsettling conundrum here in which the deep, non-instrumental importance of work is being justified on instrumental grounds. This seemingly implies that in cases where purposeful workers are not more productive, then imbuing work with greater meaning isn’t something important to pursue. Or that only purposeful workers are worthy of efforts to improve their working conditions. This is analogous to the problem with justifying corporate diversity programs solely by the business case (then these programs become subjected to the vagaries of executives’ perceptions of which employees, if any, are a source of competitive advantage, rather than diversity being seen as important for human reasons). From an industrial relations perspective in which labor is more than a commodity, the improvement of work (and diversity) is an important imperative for all workers, even when it doesn’t improve productivity or other instrumental outcomes.
Returning to Marx’s alienation, I raised this connection with Arthur as a way to emphasize that these are longstanding concerns in the world of work (so bravo!), and there have been numerous movements between Marx and now to try to give work and workers deeper meaning and respect (for example, the field of industrial relations). By bringing new data and case studies to the issue, I hope that Imperative can successfully expand upon earlier movements to embrace of the deep importance of work, which is also a goal of my book The Thought of Work. This is a deeply important issue, and a longstanding one. Unfortunately, history doesn’t seem to be on our side.
Happy May Day!