This is maybe one of the most sadly prophetic Dilbert cartoons I’ve seen. I love the humor of Dilbert, but I love even more the commentary on life, meaning, and contemporary leadership structures and practices.
The phrase “Can’t you find meaning in your personal life?” is a sadly tragic question. Who in their right mind would actually ask it?
But some do.
Let me share a few ways in which I have heard the question “Can’t you find meaning in your personal life?” asked in different language.
1. “We all don’t have to be best friends.” or the more overt “We’re not going to all be best friends.”
This is of course true. No team has a requirement that everyone is best friends. It’s not required, not necessary, and is a bonus when it happens. But why say it? Well – often it’s a defense mechanism against the feeling like you have to be something emotionally for a teammate that we either don’t want to be or that we don’t feel like we can be for them. A lot of times it’s a way of saying – “Can’t you go find what’s meaningful to you somewhere else – you know in your personal life?” I think there’s a kernal of truth there for all of us (we all need outside relationships from our work context), but we have to ask what we’re really saying to people when we have to state in this way that people should expect to have relational meaning primarily or only outside their work context.
2. “Your expectations are too high.”
Striving, relentless ambition that is driven by narcissism is of course not a helpful or edifying expression of dreams and meaningful work. However, many get nervous or don’t understand when some want to really inject a lot of themselves into a pursuit. Maybe there’s a picture of what an event or project should look like and when someone is taking it to another level or aspiring to really invest in something meaningful to all in deeper ways than just tradition or the structures typically facilitate, people get nervous.
Many years ago I once heard from someone when I was leading an event, “Hey, we don’t need to re-invent the wheel. This thing (event) will do what it does and this is what it will do for us.” Total buzzkill for meaning seekers to hear, “It doesn’t really matter what you envision or what you invest – the program or event will do what it needs to do anyway whether or not you invest a lot or not. Just stay the course.” Sometimes, our expectations can be high or unrealistic – but if the alternative is abandoning the meaning of the moment and the meaning in the process and the meaning in the possibilities – then I’ll take the unrealistic expectations every time.
The cost of abandoning meaning in our work is too high.
3. “Just do the training. It works.”
Whether it’s training, education, or other programs, there’s sometimes an invitation to abandon what’s meaningful in a lot of cases and just do what you’re told to. Training without meaning is indoctrination. This is slightly connected to #2 above, but relates more to efficiency as opposed to expectation management.
I heard the above quote from a very influential and powerful person when I was young. We sometimes can invite people into training, programs, or education in ways that don’t allow for what’s meaningful to them or that minimizes meaning. In effort to get people on board, we may not create space for people to discuss culture, identity, or context and we can lean towards giving people the “principles” and pragmatic steps to success. We can bypass what’s often meaningful to people and focus mostly on what’s meaningful to the organization. We can, through our methods and training, be telling people that they should relegate what’s meaningful to them to their personal time. So training or input that is meaningful must come by way of double duty – having to put twice as much time in to really learn and grow in those things that impact the meaning of what we do.
This isn’t an indictment on anything specific currently. The Dilbert cartoon I saw last week sparked memories of ways in the past in which I felt like I was being asked, “Can’t you just find meaning in your personal life?”
Wanting to redirect people’s pursuit of meaning to “somewhere else” is more common than you might think and all of us are tempted to do that ourselves sometimes. The question is whether we will settle to influence and create environments where we are redirecting people’s quest for meaning elsewhere or whether we will embrace the opportunities to invest in meaningful moments and a meaningful future and not take the short cuts of self-protection or mechanical pragmatism.
Are there ways you find yourself being asked to find meaning elsewhere?