Stories, and Meaning [at work]

Tl; Dr: All people are motivated by meaning of their work. The ability to shape the “stories” that we tell ourselves gives meaning and thus is an essential motivational tool. This meaning is also key for personal satisfaction.

Let’s consider a standard engineer. There are a lot of “outlooks” this engineer might have. I’ll go over 5 out of thousands of possibilities just to illustrate some variety:

  • I’m the star engineer here, and I’ll turn this place around. Others might not quite see it yet, but it’s only a matter of time.
  • I’m a great engineer but nobody appreciates my work. How come that other engineer got promoted, I don’t think their work is as good as mine. I should run the company, the CEO is only CEO because he has blue-blood 1% investor friends. The world is rigged against me.
  • I’m so excited to be an engineer. I earn multiple times the median household income and I get perks too, while my other friends are still paying off their college debt.
  • Work’s good. It’s just a job though.
  • Why am I always the one under pressure? Nobody ever thanks me no matter how hard I work. Why do I get mistreated? I’m such a victim. It’s not right.

What I’m proposing is that the same engineer having the same experiences could retell that same experience in any of the ways I listed above.

In fact, you’ll find that a lot of people gravitate towards common narratives. I have a friend, let’s call him Fry who always sees the same story: The big guy is mistreating the little guy. One thing I learned quickly was that he liked and actively chooses (if not entirely consciously) to see the world in these terms. And if I want his help, I can motivate him by giving him a rebel story he can play a part in.

For example, if I’m trying to create a new tool, I could tell it in a way that plays up the opposition, especially if it’s an entrenched “senior” group that’s cautious about new ideas, and it’ll make him want to help.

Everybody has a narrative or two that resonates with them. I have another coworker, Bender, who always promotes the story: People are stupid. I know not to try to change his story, because it’s a choice and likely inspired by some very frustrating life experience (I imagine those frustrations are valid, albeit rather long-lived). If I need him on a PR I can ask it in a way that implies I need his expertise. That way he act can out his fantasy of undoing the damage of incompetent/indifferent through the act of improving my code. A win/win.

Sometimes these narratives are just plain counterproductive. I can think of experiences when teammates were annoyed that some “undeserving” party “stole credit.” In these situations you can try to rewrite the narrative, though it takes a certain skill. One way to accomplish this is to bring up an opposing narrative like, “Yeah so his name was mentioned in a meeting big deal… I don’t do great work so some manager can mention my name, I do it because there are literally millions of users who are experiencing what I make and I think I’m lucky to be able to be in a position to help so many people. That’s something I can be proud of.” [And as an aside their is no duplicity in this. It is our choice whether to aim to “do good” or to accrue material. Each philosophy has its upsides.]

And the fact that people are choosing to live these stories is an important fact. For a long time, I would have thought doing this type of thing was “manipulative” or “tricking” people into work when I could instead explain to them why their underlying narrative was too black&white. But knowing that these narratives are choices, with symbolic importance, that give meaning to the individual who holds them, I see now that people choose to live these stories hoping to “play them out.”

And most importantly, we all have narratives. Mastering other peoples narratives is a great tool, but mastering your own is probably more important.


Part 2.

If you’re a leader in an organization, you need to be aware of the stories that occupy the minds you oversee. Do people see themselves as battling each other for recognition? Do they see themselves as allies against a great evil? Do they see themselves as victims of your rule?

People within the company all have their narratives, and those attitudes are contagious. Your actions will have a great role in deciding which attitude wins out.

I’ve seen organizations torn apart by leaders who were out-of-touch with the effects of their actions. The cultural effects you have are of supreme importance. Actions like requiring engineers start an hour earlier, for example, are incredibly dangerous, because they give room for the narrative “We are seen as code monkeys” to thrive.

To win this battle you must understand the narratives that you are battling against. You must truly understand them, you must know and appreciate the day-to-day of your workers. For example, you must know that your Office Manager Lela is frustrated, sleep-deprived, is wondering where her life is going, and is starting to feel like the “manager” in her title is meaningless. When you know the people you work with you’ll know what stories are compelling to them. When you understand, you will be capable of offering the service of arming them with a better story, a brighter story, a more compelling story. Because as bad as Lela’s life is, it’s better for everyone if she feels like her work matters at the end of the day.

This is your value.

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