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Enthusiasm, Work and Responsibility

Robert White, July, 2001

This article appeared in the July 18, 2001 issue of the World Business Academy "Viewpoint" and is republished here with permission. Visit the WBA at

Recently the World Business Academy reported that 30% of business people reported that they had no enthusiasm for their jobs. They asked the WBA "Fellows", a group I'm very proud to be part of, to comment on what they thought of this, to them, shocking number. Here's a slightly edited version of my response:

Though I'm personally not very interested in numbers, the exact percentage of people who report "no enthusiasm for their work" is, in our direct experience of working now with over 500,000 people in our seminars, clearly much higher than 30% ... and the 80% figure Dr. Mark Albion quoted from Wilson Learning is possible. One approach to looking at the root causes of this malaise is to look through the lens of responsibility.

I've spent the last thirty years studying the power of individual responsibility and how claiming responsibility is a key component of creating effective individuals and all systems - including workplaces. Our company name (Balance Point) is an acronym for Awareness, Responsibility and Communication..... so Responsibility is central to all that we teach through our experiential learning events.

The responsibility for this debilitating, expensive and sad reality is shared by

  • the companies for whom these individuals work (and their management)
  • by our general culture of entitlement and passivity and, not least of all,
  • by the individuals themselves.

My observation is that in most of the management literature and business reporting that addresses this issue, the company is usually focused on as the "cause" and greater societal culture and the individual are either completely ignored or their causal role is minimized.

This word used in the survey, "enthusiasm", is worthy of some attention. Its origin is from the Greek, en theos, or literally, with God. My deduction from that explanation of the word's root is that we are called enthusiastic when we are in a state of being "with God", feeling one with spirit and connected to our essential self, our purpose, vision and values. Just a few months ago, sharing that observation in an organizational context would be a problem for many people; however, with this week's Fortune Magazine cover story being about spirit in the workplace, perhaps all of us who share the belief that everything is spirit or energy or even spiritual, can come out from under our respective rocks.

If you can accept that "with God" interpretation for the source of enthusiasm, and that responsibility for generating it is shared, here's my perspective on the three major responsibilities for spirit, thus enthusiasm, being missing in action in most workplaces:

Organizations and Their Leadership

Most organizations and their leadership continue to be in denial about the power of culture to affect people and their bottom line results. The facts are in. Thanks to the pioneering research done by Dr. Daniel Dennison at the University of Michigan and then expanded on by EP's former Vice President, Dr. Caroline Fisher, we now know that actualizing specific, measurable practices leading to a healthy, productive culture is the single most important responsibility of leadership that leads to a high performance organization.

In other words, if leaders are not taking personal responsibility for the development and maintenance of a positive culture as a major priority, they are not doing their jobs. In this regard, Harrison Owen said it so well about his role as an organizational consultant: "My first question of leadership is always some version of 'How's the spirit around here?'"

I would add to that question my judgment that if the spirit is not so good, it is a major indictment of organizational leadership's failure to liberate the spirit resident in all workers when they are clear on the purpose, vision, values and mission of the work.

The Culture

We could write a book here and some great ones have already been written. Our celebrity focused, outer (vs. inner) directed and "I'm entitled without earning it" culture has created an environment wherein enthusiasm is NOT COOL. With all we don't know about people and their motivations, one reality proven again and again is the power of group norms ..... and the norms about working are abysmally dysfunctional.

Many people sit before television screens for hours soaking up powerful images of work as something to avoid or complain about or sabotage. When was the last time you heard of a figure in popular culture exclaiming how excited they are about the privilege of working? Of the contribution they are making to people through their work? Of how happy and satisfied their customers are?

Most people reading these thoughts don't watch much television and I highly recommend some channel surfing some afternoon through the wasteland of the popular afternoon talk shows. Remember as you do so that advertisers are paying big bucks because there is a huge audience watching these portrayals of victims as celebrities and heroes! I represent this message spills over into the general culture and the workplaces unless strongly acted on by an outside force ... and that takes us back to the first point about leadership's responsibility.

Only someone truly naïve or financially benefiting from mass media could maintain with a straight face that a positive model for working is being portrayed or that their universally negative portrayal of work and celebration of a "victim culture" has no effect on their audiences.

The Individual

Going off to work with enthusiasm or sharing an enthusiastic personal experience of work or taking personal responsibility for your experience of work requires a truly clear, courageous and committed person given our current culture.

I lead a program for Balance Point each summer called "The Aspen Experience" which focuses on people's legacy, what they will leave behind. A story we share each year is titled "The Dancing Tolltaker" about a man who dances inside his tollbooth at the Golden Gate Bridge. When interviewed he acknowledged that his job was repetitive and often customers were rude. He went on to say the job also gave him the freedom to express himself through dance and that it brought him greater joy, thus a greater connection to spirit that he could share with his commuter customers.

One message from his story is that even if the organization fails to communicate the deeper purpose and meaning of work, even if the culture is non-supportive of work and promotes a victim culture, every individual can still choose to find a deeper meaning in their work thus releasing spirit .... and enthusiasm.

"Can enthusiasm be raised?"

Your question is challenging to answer because God or spirit can only be experienced, not understood. Leaders who are committed to improving the climate in their organizations can begin with

  • Developing an awareness of the current reality and the personal and organizational costs resulting from the continued lack of enthusiasm.
  • Take personal responsibility for acting to improve it.
  • Communicate early, often and late about the organization's deeper purpose, vision, values and mission.

I'm personally not clear about the advisability of bringing "God" to the workplace, even with Fortune's support. Our increasingly diverse workforce would seem to argue against any set of spiritual practices working for everyone. However, we can begin to address Harrison Owen's question "How's the spirit around here?". We can begin to talk about how energy and spirit are the source of all results. We can declare how our work is meaningful, how it contributes to people and society and that we all need to develop some connection to that deeper meaning.

There are multiple reasons not to "try" generating more enthusiasm for work and the projected outcomes are clear - being less competitive, personal distress and a steadily declining experience of work. There are just as many reasons to "just do it" and the payoffs are legion - profitability, improved personal health and a future we will be proud to leave to our children.

I'm enthusiastic about the possibilities!

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