Cultivating culture requires finding our whys

June 23, 2021

By: Chris White

It’s a bit taboo to talk about love in the workplace. But that’s exactly what we felt after a recent team meeting. Let me explain.

I led a conversation to discuss why we’re “bankies” individually and to reflect on the purpose of Riverbank as a whole. Abundant research shows that purpose fuels us individually and collectively (subscription required). In preparing the meeting, I suggested that people consider Amy Wrzesniewski’s categories in “Jobs, Careers, and Callings” to help them think about what they’re seeking from their involvement with Riverbank. These categories help us see the role our work plays in our lives through different lenses.

For some people, “job” might include, “it helps pay the bills.”

“Career” might be, “I get to use my skills in engaging and progressively challenging ways.”

“Calling” might be, “I make an impact on peoples’ lives.”

All of these categories and reasons are valid, as they are just different lenses through which we can consider the meaning of work.

It was a fascinating discussion, in part because most of the participants no longer have to work for financial reasons anymore. Riverbank deliberately recruits recently retired senior executives who want to include meaningful work as a part of the way they spend their time now that they’re no longer responsible for large profit and loss statements (P&Ls) and thousands of employees. So, if not to pay the bills, why would they spend their time this way?

Everyone had their unique reasons for being involved. The authenticity of the conversation was inspiring. Some noted their desire to continue making a positive difference in the world. They want to spend more time with kids and grandkids, or traveling — but not all of their time. Others noted they enjoyed the continued intellectual stimulation of continuing work, but with much more flexibility than holding a top executive job enables.

However, the dominant theme in the conversation was the camaraderie that people felt within the Riverbank community. People expressed genuine warmth and affection for each other as human beings. There’s such joy in collaborating, creating, and interacting with people who you truly like.

In fact, there’s a term for this. Researchers Sigal Barsade and Mandy O’Neill call it “companionate love.” In an interview with Knowledge@Wharton, Barsade explains that this is shown “when colleagues who are together day in and day out, ask and care about each other’s work and even non-work issues … They are careful of each other’s feelings. They show compassion when things don’t go well.”

Companionate love was an important theme in our team discussion, but it’s only one element of the culture. Other whys are important, too. People look for opportunities for meaningful contribution, demonstrating respect and appreciation, flexibility and autonomy appropriate to their experience and expertise. All of these are key ingredients for retired C-suite executives rewiring to be executive consultants as a part of their portfolio of semiretirement activities.

Time is the ultimate non-renewable resource. Deciding how we spend it is key. Reflecting on our individual and collective reasons for what we choose to involve ourselves with is intrinsically valuable. Yet, this kind of reflection is also practical.

In this anecdote, there are four action implications for leaders:

  1. Ask yourself, what’s your why? You, too, may want to break it down by job, career, and calling.
  2. Invite others to share their perspective. I recommend giving people time to reflect in advance and then setting aside dedicated time for sharing and listening to each other.
  3. Consider to what extent your culture today is enabling people to fulfill their whys.
  4. Explore how to close the gap.

Culture is a living thing. It’s always growing and evolving. With thoughtful and supportive exploration, we can be even better tomorrow than we are today.

Chris White is Principal at Riverbank Consulting Group and a faculty associate at the Center for Positive Organizations at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business.

The original article was published in Forbes. Copyright © 2021 by Chris White.