Meaningful Work with Meaningless Life

April 5, 2019

Organizations are adrift. Leaders are struggling. Mental diseases are booming.

It looks like a tabloid cover story, but it has been happening at corporate world for years.

Before framing the biggest corporate challenge of the century, let us start with some historical perspective. Designed in the beginnings of 1900s, large corporations had broken their “job for life” commitment in the 1970s and 80s due to the speed-up of innovation processes. Since then, shorter business cycles and disruptive business models fostered by digital technology only increased external shocks on companies, naturally hurting emotional attachments with employees due to the fear of losing their jobs.

I must remember that humans  do not have enough cognitive skills to really understand fast moving dynamics in any situation. Our brain processes incremental and linear pathways, but usually get completely lost with complexity, velocity, ambiguity and uncertainty. Lucky robots! It’s clear then that digital transformation surely had a great impact on organizations.

Nevertheless, based on sociological and economical evidences, I should state that ethics transition is the really  gratest corporate challenge of the century. Amazingly, organizations and leaders have not been   so aware of this social phenomenon as they both should be. Digital transformation agendas might seem sexy, but ethics transition really hits the core principles of the meaning of work – just because it also changes the meaning of human life.

Philosophically, the meaning of life is the cornerstone of metaphysics and religions. Facing the unbearable fear of death, humans desperately seek for psychological and social anchors that help them to live a meaningful life with certain level of resignation and joy. Throughout the history of humankind, families, communities, nations and temples were combined to provide a sense of meaning for an individual inserted in the collective social life.

I now briefly describe the bastions of the ethic as duty paradigm that has defined the meaning of human life for centuries of years in this planet, notably in Western world. Family was certainly the core nucleus, assuring marriage stability even in the absence of love, raising lots of children around elders. Small communities used to be the center of social life all over the world, with neighborhoods surrounded by small shops, families, houses with no walls, calm streets and traditional rituals. Though nations were invented during the 1800s, reigns, empires and tribes were expanded and defeated around common social customs, folklores, language, food and shared values, thus providing sense of belonging to something greater and, at the same time, sense of distinction in relation to foreigners. Lastly, spiritual life was the ultimate bridge to the eternal life since ever, initially with its sacerdotal-centric power over supernatural forces intensively experienced by believers, then eventually replaced by a puritan moral behavior defined after the disenchantment caused by Lutheran Reform in the 16th century.

Companies are, in fact, a recent human invention, only possible to productivity gains aligned with technological advances in agricultural fields and industrial facilities. Large global companies are even more recent in humankind history. Initially inspired on Roman Legions and Modern Military Armies, large companies were designed as social control mechanisms to provide scalable repeatable compliant production of goods and services to mass of consumers developed by mass merchandising. Its rational-empirical perspective was perfectly aligned with ethic as duty   imperatives: science, formal relationships, long-term stability, technical procedures, puritan moral behavior, fearful God, clear social roles for family members, national authority, linear predictable progression, sacerdotal authority, community authority. Even the educational system was transformed into a manufacturing machine of ready-to-be-hired blue-collar employees, and suddenly managerial schools arose to provide better skilled white-collar managers, well equipped with 2×2 matrixes.

It’s now crystal clear that the “job for life” motto was the perfect employee value proposition until the 1970s and the 1980s. Stable families, stable communities, stable societies and stable spiritual world required stable working  life, rewarding longevity, conformity and loyalty. Employees – both blue and white collars – perceived jobs as jobs, companies as companies, bosses as bosses, working activities as working activities. There was no need to seek the meaning of life inside manufacturing facilities or corporate offices. Life fulfillment has been fulfilled outside company walls by solid psychological and social anchors, so that working was only about working.

Then, what happened? Well, in just about 50 years, these anchors were severely eroded. Families are now smaller and much more unstable – unhappy marriages now welcome transactional divorces, while kids are been replaced by pets. Communities were fragmented in fancy apartment buildings and their impersonal relationships, while social media  appearance transformed social connections into a commodity to be monetized. Nations are losing credibility for decades, while local customs have been extincted by global standards. Finally, spiritual life has been detached from God, curiously embracing the power of superintelligence machines (you might now visualize Apple Store as a trully Apple Temple). Strange world…

Anyway, with the rapid decline of traditional psychological and social anchors, individuals now have to struggle with the meaning of life, facing their inexorable death. Philosophically, the ethic as duty   has been replaced by the pleasure as ethics during the past thirty years, especially in the Western world, but, due to globalization, also in the Eastern world.

Pleasure as ethic can be simply defined as hedonistic perspective about life. With no boundaries and commitments provided by families, communities, nations and priests, individuals only see themselves as relevant stakeholders to be satisfied all the time. They want engaging experiences, expression of self and relevant causes that enhances self-image.

Just to illustrate my arguments, two great artifacts reflecting this new way of life are selfies and tattoos – real worship of human body in search of social approval and recognition. However, humans are social animals, requiring meaningful social interaction to define themselves. In the absence of that, there is only a meaningless individual life. According to the World Health Organization, 16% of global population now suffers from some mental disorder, such as anxiety, depression, bipolararity and schizophrenia. Meanwhile, US reached 22% of mental disorders relative to its population. Of course it is noble to treat these diseases with drugs and treatments, but instead we could focus on their root causes.

So, now companies are being required to offer answers to metaphysical questions. All the quest for meaningful jobs happens concomitant to meaningless life. It’s honorable to redesign corporate environment and reskill leaders in alignment with mental, physical, spiritual and emotional aspects of human dynamics. On the other hand, only fancy open spaces, perks, early morning mindfulness sessions, cool gadgets and squads are not the appropriate response to improve job satisfaction.

I do not foresee any recovery of the relevance of families, communities, nations and priests. Sadly, I truly believe that human life will probably be more digitalized, artificial boosted, social isolated and self-centered. Maybe people will soon choose to completely abandon reality in favor of some X reality framework that recovers their sense of belonging. Maybe people will soon choose to use drugs to artificially stimulates perceptions of a meaningful life. Maybe social robots will take care of us in a near future.

I also believe that the meaning of jobs will change before people discover the Holy Grail meaningful works. Digital integrated platforms, IOT, nanotechnology and artificial intelligence are increasingly fostering productivity gains beyond traditional manufacturing facilities and service lines. Sooner than expected, lots of job functions will be split into micro working activities possible to be delivered by multiple contractors with no formal job relationship with one company. Maybe, working will find new meanings beyond the definition of jobs, with unpredictable impacts on organizational culture of these large companies.

From a leadership perspective,  understand  the impacts of transition of ethic is the key to really optimize influence. In extreme, meaningless life is  hard to be motivated anyway when mental health issues arise and prove that   to all of us. Nevertheless, it is worthwhile to rethink approaches, review processes, redesign organizations, reskill teams and renew mindsets to deal with current challenges posed by pleasure as ethic in the workplace.


Daniel Motta is the Founder and CEO of BMI Blue Management Institute, a leading niche consulting firm. He is a global thought leader focused on culture, strategy and leadership. He has a PhD in Economics, MSc in Financial Economics and BA in Economics. He is also an OPMer from Harvard Business School. He is the Managing Director of USA-based VC company White Fox Capital and the Senior Tupinambá Maverick of bossa&etc. He was a co-founder of Brazilian Society of Finance. He currently serves NGO UNIBES as Strategic Planning Principal. He is the author of the best selling books Essential Leadership and book Anthesis. He also has three articles published by Harvard Business Review. He is a Board Member of MASP.