What is Work: Examining Our Values


I was new to the company, new to the department and trying to get my bearings and connect with the staff by hosting an informal, brown bag lunch.  There were eight of us including Ms. A., a woman who was the temporary department secretary.  She had been working for the man I replaced.  Mr. D. orchestrated his retirement seamlessly, allowing for a one-month overlap between us to show me the ropes and introduce me to the regional offices; he even chose not to offer his temporary assistant a permanent job in case I had other thoughts about the position.  Now he was gone and I was getting to know people.

The group, mostly young women, was making small talk, focused on the upcoming wedding of one of the our staff members.  The bride-to-be made a comment, not at all in jest, that the groom-to-be needed a better job.

“Why?” I asked her.

“Because,” she replied, “as soon as we get married, I need to hire a weekly cleaning lady.  I DO NOT scrub toilets. ”

Ms. A. and my eyes met inadvertently and we were both in mid eye roll. And here is where management gets messy, because real people have real histories.  Ms. A. had working class roots.  My own background was strictly working class, the first person in my family to not only go to college but the first person to NOT work in a factory.  Those backgrounds helped forge values that guide us through life; values that defined work as anything honest that needed doing.  That mutual eye roll sealed our fate!  We recognized that our values were similar though we would never have articulated it as that; back then we would have said that “Miss-I-do-not-scrub-toilets” was a spoiled brat who had better grow up!  We saw that as truth!  Ms. A. became my assistant, my confidant and my friend.  She accompanied me when I moved to another company and she became the office manager, event planner and Jack and Jill of all trades/tasks and saw, before anyone else, what needed to be done!   If the toilets in the new building needed scrubbing I have no doubt that she and I would have been doing it together, with rubber gloves up to our elbows, bleach and brushes in hand and Motown playing the background!

Why do I think there is a management lesson here?  I believe that we bring unspoken, often unacknowledged values to the question: what is work? Those values are personal values but we treat them like truth and use them to judge others.  This is particularly problematic when you are part of a team or a team leader and the members of that team bring different values to the task at hand.  There are a number of dimensions that demand conversation and reflection:

  • Do you know what you’re manager’s values are regarding “what is work?” People who worked for me had a difficult time if they didn’t get that I believed that staff should be willing to jump in and do whatever it takes.  Saying “it’s not my job” was one of the very worse things you could say to me.
  • Are you, as an employee, willing to go to a place where you are uncomfortable, even if the task is “below” you or requires the kind of sacrifice that more junior people make when “paying their dues?”  As a team leader, do you ask someone to do something “below” them for the good of the team? I once had a terrific woman working for me who was reluctant to ask the junior person to order the coffee and sandwiches for a meeting, because the senior woman didn’t want to insult the junior woman.  So the senior woman did it herself, infuriating me.  I wanted the senior woman to spend every minute focusing on the task at hand.
  • Are you given a task that asks you to stretch your boundaries and perhaps learn skills on your own time in order to accomplish something new? How about with a vague promise that it will help you get ahead?  Or no promises – only that you will do your current job better.  What does that kind of request trigger in your personal value system? People who took it upon themselves to learn something new or sign up for a seminar or a meeting really impressed me.  It’s how I defined initiative.
  • As a team leader, are you questioning and questioning again your thinking about what you’re asking of which employees?  What are you assuming about people?  I often made sweeping assumptions about people, and I’ve watched other executives do so as well.  Those individuals who didn’t stay late or didn’t volunteer may have elder care responsibilities that preclude those extra hours.  I needed to remind myself that my assumptions were not fact.

This is hard work and requires directness and an honesty that we rarely find in a work environment.  But it is important to recognize that our personal values greatly influence how we work, how we manage and how we lead.  If we only acknowledge and reward those employees whose values match our own, we risk disenfranchising a significant pool of talent.  I believe that it is important to examine and question your values around work.

What happens when an organization gets more complex?  The best leaders, do not, for a moment, forget that the proverbial toilets still need to be scrubbed.  They know that every person on every team needs to understand and feel how their job fits into the larger purpose and the strategic direction of the company.  They know helping the individual understand how they fit and how they contribute is one of the most important parts of their job.



“Dare to be honest and fear no labor.”                           Robert Burns






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