As kids we get praised for the things we’re good at and our talents quickly become synonymous with what those around us assume to be our defining strengths. We often get funnelled towards educational and career pathways that play to these strengths and are led to assume that a fulfilling working life will follow. When it doesn’t, we’re not sure what went wrong.
Psychometrics expert and author, Marcus Buckingham, thinks he knows the answer. He calls it, "the excellence curse" and it's where talents get confused with strengths and lead people down career paths not conducive to long-term happiness.
So, does this mean millions of people have ended up in the “wrong” jobs by default?
It's about being intentional and thinking about the parts of your job that give you a kick
"Yes, because if you are going to be successful, to thrive and to be resilient in life, then you've got to find joy and nourishment in what you're doing," says Buckingham, the co-creator of the Strengths Finder psychometrics system and author of Love + Work which will be published by Harvard Business Review Press in April.
“What happens if you’re really good at something that you hate? Or that bores you, or frustrates you, or drags you down?” he adds. “What should you call that? It’s bizarre to call this a ‘strength’ and tell you to make life decisions around it, since it’s something that drains the living daylights out of you. And yet this happens all the time...
“Where there’s no love, the activity is a weakness, even if you excel at it.”
Buckingham cites research from the Mayo Clinic into burnout among medics that emphasises how a little love at work goes a long way.
“They found that if someone loves just 20 per cent of the activities related to their job, that’s enough to recharge them and prevent burnout,” he says. “Interestingly, if someone’s satisfaction level is more than 20 per cent, that doesn’t offer a commensurate increase in resilience, but if it falls below 20 per cent then the risk of burnout is far more likely.
“You don’t need to love what you do. That’s ridiculous and there’s no data supporting it anyway,” he adds. “But you‘ve got to find something to love in what you do and 20 per cent is the threshold. It’s about being intentional and thinking about the parts of your job that give you a kick.”
It's not that they don't believe in the 'why'. It's that they're not getting any love out of the 'what' and that's very draining
In Buckingham’s opinion, there’s a potential kick in any job, a view he has arrived at having spent 25 years interviewing people all over the world about their work.
In short, it’s not one’s position in the hierarchy that matters. It’s the satisfaction drawn from a task, whether that’s something relatively simple or highly complex.
“I’ve learned that you need to look at a job through the lens of the person doing it,” he says. “To me it might look boring but the person doing it find aspects within it to love. It’s up to each of us to choose how we look at our job. In North America for example, we know that over 70 per cent of people there have the scope to manoeuvre their job, so it fits them better. They just don’t bother to do it.”
Buckingham is scathing about workplaces with a culture of employee mistrust or that have become slaves to process and poor structures.
“We’ve designed a lot of loveless jobs so we shouldn’t be surprised when people hate them,” he says. “But let’s step this back a bit. We’re always told to start with the ‘why’. If we really believe in the why of our jobs, that’s enough. In fact, it’s not because the ‘what’ [what the job involves] always trumps the why.
“Think about the doctors and nurses in the study. They couldn’t have believed more passionately in the why of their work. Yet the place we have most burnout and least resilience, other than teaching, is in healthcare because of the way the work is structured.
“It’s not that they don’t believe in the ‘why’. It’s that they’re not getting any love out of the ‘what’ and that’s very draining.”
Fewer than a fifth of employees are fully engaged and the rest are just selling their time and talent and getting compensated accordingly
As a psychometrician, Buckingham is interested in how employees measure up in areas such as resilience and engagement. When it comes to engagement, which keeps cropping up as a top post-pandemic priority for leaders everywhere, Buckingham shares an example to illustrate how economics can undercut what should be a human-based process.
“In the US, for example, the supervisor to nurse ratio is 1:60 because that’s what makes sense on a balance sheet,” he says. “But it doesn’t make human sense because humans need other humans’ attention in order to feel seen at work and to experience some sort of empathy and connection. People grow in response to other human beings.
“Someone in charge of 60 people can’t possibly pay attention to all of them and humans can’t work in a way that deprives them of individualised attention.”
Buckingham reckons that, “love has been driven out of our workplaces” and he’s not talking about office romances here. He says fewer than a fifth of employees are fully engaged and the rest are just selling their time and talent and getting compensated accordingly.
As a result, stress and mental health problems are at unprecedented levels. “Leaders are depleted, employees are burning out at an alarming rate, and parents met their breaking point long ago. We are getting something terribly wrong,” he says.