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Why are you doing the work you do?

  • 04 March 2014
  • Posted by Marcella Bremer

Why are you a leader, a change-maker or a professional in your field? It’s a question that becomes en vogue. Or, should I say, a certain type of answer becomes the standard. The answer that refers to your higher purpose, or Work (as opposed to your job: your work).

I attended Rotterdam School of Management from 1985 and in those days, the Why-question was irrelevant. If you asked, the answer was a shrug because it was a no-brainer. “To make a lot of money, of course! I am ambitious and I need to be challenged, so I aim to work in a multinational corporation when I graduate.” I generalize, but this was the standard answer and mindset. Quite a few fellow students wore suits to the lectures and carried a business-like briefcase. They dressed for material success.

I chose business school because I liked the idea of “learning a bit of everything”. I couldn’t commit to obtain a Masters degree in History, Law, French or Psychology – to learn a lot of one specialist topic. I settled for a generalist study. In business school, we had it all: Finance, Law, Marketing, Psychology, Management and Leadership, Team work, Change Management, Ethics, Philosophy, International Collaboration – you name it. I loved the variety, especially the human side of business. How do people attribute meaning to events in a group? They co-create it when they have a conversation. Wow! I was interested in culture, change and leadership from the beginning. And I hoped to help make the world a better place.

Profit and Power

But I felt more and more misplaced. I didn’t really relate to the ambitions of most fellow students. I got discouraged – would it be my destiny to achieve 1% more profit for one of Unilever’s margarine brands? Nothing wrong with that – some people like margarine on their sandwiches, but what was the meaning of my life? We were in the midst of the materialist, egoist Eighties, and I was struggling with my WHY’s.

But the timing wasn’t quite right. There was high unemployment in the Netherlands in the early Nineties and I had to pay the rent. I aimed for the top levels of Maslow’s motivational pyramid of needs – but I had to pay my bills and lowered my expectations. The answer to my Why became very pragmatic: “I’m in this job because I need to make money. Okay, I’ll learn a lot of things along the way. I’ll make the best of it.” So I settled for a job in the Communications unit of the Restructuring and Change Project of the Dutch Army who were going through a major reorganization and transition after the cold war had ended and the military draft was suspended in 1991 – and they joined United Nations peacekeeping operations. (But that’s another story). And yes, I learned a lot!

Purpose and Planet

Welcome back, to the 21st Century! We’ve gone through major political, economical, world and mindset changes. It’s incredible. Though we still have a lot of major challenges ahead (no doubt about that) we’ve come a long way compared to the Eighties when the answer to Why? was: Money! The economical and environmental crises help more and more people wake up. We’ve become tired of the rat race and working until we get a burn-out. The “banksters” and other leadership failures make us weary and wary. We turn to our friends and families and try to have fun without spending a ton. Sustainability, People-Planet-Profit (Triple P), and Responsible Enterprises are becoming normal. We can practice mindfulness or yoga at work. You would have been dragged out of the multinational headquarters if you did that, back in the Eighties. You would have been called a Hippie (and that wasn’t a compliment).

But today, pursuing a higher purpose than profit makes you a responsible professional. You can hear Unilever explain (I attended such a keynote speech by one of their front men) how they want to reduce child mortality and how they not only sell soap to developing countries, but also educate African Mom’s on hygiene and the importance of washing your hands, to prevent scary contagious diseases and diarrhea and keep kids happy and healthy. This is the business world we currently live in. Of course, action speaks louder than words, and there’s a lot of window dressing (I’m not accusing Unilever – this is a general observation), but still, isn’t this incredible?

This is the time when we hear someone like Eileen Fisher, an American fashion designer and founder of a $300 million company, ask and answer the question: “What’s the deeper purpose of our work?”

This is a Why that goes beyond the first levels of Maslow. This goes beyond paying my rent. This is the Why I was looking for – and I had to wait for more than 25 years before it became a normal question with an answer that refers to purpose and that transcends my personal gain. Finally, I’m feeling at home in this era and in business. I’m no longer a solitary Hippie wondering what she’s doing here.

Workplace as a Learning Lab

Aren’t you excited about the mindset changes that you see around you? Of course, it depends on what you choose to see. The positive changes – or the many things that are still ugly. I tend to look at how far we’ve come, since I felt misplaced and discouraged among my fellows in business school and in organizations I worked with.

The workplace is an excellent learning laboratory to develop yourself and find out who you are and why you are really in “the game”. You haven’t chosen all of your direct co-workers but you spend most of your waking time with them. The workplace challenges you to connect with others and to achieve your individual and collective goals together. More and more organizations are becoming places where people treat each other “normally”, instead of yelling, bullying, manipulating, using carrots and sticks and telling the others what to do, or else...! Professionals are motivated by mastery of their skills, autonomy and purpose (Dan Pink).

Change is going so outrageously fast and seems emergent and disruptive: our 19th century hierarchies become too slow. We have to be self-aware, confident, professional, agile and well-connected to others to collaborate and to co-create in these times. We need to know our Whys, make constant decisions about priorities and what’s important, or not. We need to define what changes will matter to us, we need to know who we are; we need to raise awareness of ourselves and the whole system. This is a fascinating time and the workplace enables us to learn fast: we can take our new attitude and people skills back home to family, community, and social action causes. Through the 21st century workplace (when it’s no longer an old-fashioned, political, top-down sweat shop) we can develop the workers – and the world.


In issue 5 of Leadership & Change Magazine, we invite you to think about your personal answer to: Why you’re in this line of work? Read the article by Daryl Conner! Get inspired by Eileen Fisher who wants to do good and develop herself – she’s not in the business for the money. Leontine van Hooft explains how she connects with her co-workers through the African Ubuntu principle and practice (now, that would have been outrageous back in the day!). We hear the successful entrepreneur August Turak declare that “service and selflessness will lift your organization”. Graham Williams shares an inspiring case of how Values and Virtues helped a South-African organization grow without losing their “spirit”. And Jim Bohn helps us keep our feet on the ground: in spite of “love and peace” ideals, how do you respond when co-workers don’t want or cannot work with you and your team?

I invite you to contemplate your Why and to share it with others. It will energize your workplace!

Marcella Bremer
is the co-founder of OCAI online, a change consultant and author on change, culture and leadership. She also is the editor of Leadership & Change Magazine.

PS: Do you like the challenge to contribute to this magazine? We welcome perspectives on leadership, culture and change from all over the world. Contact us.

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