The Why of Work

A review of the recently released book by Ulrich&Ulrich.

The first response many people will have to the Ulrichs’ book title will be to hear the Why and Work words, contrast them with the increasing pressure they probably currently feel simply keeping the show on the road and reach for the Ten Minute Manager or a similarly pragmatic and less esoteric title. I also have a strong suspicion that a considerable cadre of senior managers believe the answer to the question is “because I pay you to”,

The Ulrich’s have a damn good stab at making yet another business case for why to consider the why. In this regard they’re keeping company with many of the major research houses that have come to the same conclusion.They point, as others do, to the market value of intangibles and the track record of business leaders who value soft skills. The trouble is, the market is saturated with studies making the same case. So why are employee engagement levels still at record low levels? Well, clearly, boardrooms, in the main, are still saying one thing and doing another, safe in the knowledge that it’s an employer’s market “like it or lump it”. Will this book change that “dog in a manger” mentality? It may help… a bit. Even if the revolution has to come one leader at a time, that, at least, has to be a good thing.

The most impactful business case for their core thesis that people and businesses are more effective when they understand the why of work comes well into the book, when David shares an anecdote about the banking crisis and counter-capitalist bailout process. When asked his opinion he does point to the elephant in the room namely the glaring absence of actions to address the root cause of the problem: “If the holes are not fixed or people’s lives are not put in order, bailouts accomplish little”. Wise words indeed. But again, who is really listening? David makes the link between individual behaviour, corporate culture, work and home life. Yet all of the political talk is obsessed with structural and legislative changes.

This book implies that creating a culture in which leaders think as hard about the “how” as they do the “what”; where people create rather than exploit relationships and where colleagues examine their own motivation, values and style as well as the qualities of others can collectively be a route to addressing the root causes of the economic malaise. I can’t agree more.

Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl sums this cause and effect relationship up (as he tends to), much more effectively with a single poignant phrase, when quoting Nietzsche “He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how”. The worry is that the current focus remains firmly on the suffering rather than enabling and on the “bearing” rather than re-framing and re-focusing the why.

I recently happened upon two choice quotes during the course of my workaday consultancy that illustrate why. The first is from a CEO:

“I have plenty of emotional intelligence…I just choose to ignore that voice most of the time”.

The second is from an HR director who confided privately:

“The mistake many people make is that when I say “I understand” they somehow hear “I care”.

I think we can all see the dilemma the Ulrichs faced when they wrote this book. While I would like to see more of their philosophy role-modelled in the style and structure of their writing, the reader will be left in no doubt that leaders would do well to read this and soak it up attentively and with some quiet humility. Let’s face it, few business and political leaders have too much to be arrogant about right now and could, quite frankly, do with all the help they can get.


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