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More purpose, fewer silos: some keys to meaningful work

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From left to right, actors Zach Cherry, John Turturro and Adam Scott in the show "Severance" sit around a table in the break room at an office with coffee mugs.

The Macrodata Refinement department at Lumon Industries includes Dylan (Zach Cherry), left, Irving (John Turturro) and Mark (Adam Scott). Apple TV+

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For our Econ Extra Credit project, we usually watch one documentary a month on Marketplace-y themes. For July, however, we’ve been watching the dystopian sci-fi dark comedy “Severance” on Apple TV+. The premise is that people working for a big, shady mega-corporation called Lumon get brain surgery to totally separate their work lives from their home lives, to the point where they cannot remember work when they leave the office and vice versa.

Workplace satire is everywhere in this show, and one place in particular where it’s quite pointed is trying and sometimes failing to find purpose in your work.

“Marketplace Morning Report” host David Brancaccio spoke about this with Adam Grant, professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, author of “Think Again” and host of the podcast “WorkLife.” The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

David Brancaccio: Now in the show, this fictional company Lumon is aggressive in not telling the employees why they do what they do — I mean, in one case, looking at a waterfall of random-seeming numbers on a screen and trashing the numbers that feel malevolent somehow. Now, as a business professor watching, you must have been just shaking your head. No purpose? That doesn’t work out in the end.

Adam Grant: I mean, I thought it was hilarious because it captures what so many people experience at work. And it felt like a more dystopian version of “Office Space” in many ways. But we see a lot of managers do this. They don’t understand the importance of showing employees how their work makes a difference. And it doesn’t take a lot. I actually — I don’t know if you know this, David, but this was the topic of my doctoral dissertation, which, you know, conveniently is dramatized here. So I was struck that so many people spend the majority of their waking hours doing work without knowing its ultimate impact. And I wondered what would happen if we close that gap. So one of my experiments was with fundraising callers who were bringing in money for a university, and nobody bothered to tell them where that money went. I brought in a single scholarship student to talk about how the money that fundraisers brought in had changed his life. And some of the callers were randomly assigned to just talk to him for five minutes. And after that one five-minute interaction, their weekly time on the phone went up by 142%, and their weekly revenue went up by 171%.

So maybe a better way to say that is the callers who were randomly assigned to just meet one person who benefited from their work nearly tripled in the amount of weekly revenue they brought in, and more than doubled in the weekly effort they put in. And all of a sudden, instead of feeling like, you know, my job is basically to harass alums during dinner, they felt like “No, my work is actually all about making scholarships possible for students who can’t afford an education. And that makes my job much more meaningful.”

Brancaccio: Yeah, and it’s not just purpose. It’s meaningful purpose. I mean, you know, a kind of purpose is, “Well, I do what I do to keep the boss from yelling at me,” or “I do what I do to keep the paycheck coming.” But that’s not what would really motivate somebody.

Grant: No. What we’re looking for is a sense that we matter, right? That if my job didn’t exist, somebody would be worse off. And one of the things I often push leaders and managers to do is to ask, “If the jobs that your teams were doing didn’t exist, who would be worse off?” And then, “Are you giving people a chance to meet those beneficiaries of that work?” The clients, the customers, the patients, the end users? Do they know their stories? Can they name them? Can they picture their faces? And that’s ultimately what drives most people to care about what they do and feel valued.

Brancaccio: Now another, I have to say, really amazing part of this show is the interoffice rivalry theme. The folks at Macrodata Refinement, that department of this Lumon corporation, nobody knows what they do, have cultivated a deep — more than a suspicion, a deep antipathy toward the folks in another part of the company called Optics and Design. Professor, you probably teach that silos in companies are somehow terrible. You’ve written that success is not about competition, but contribution. I don’t know — maybe these interoffice rivalries are not so bad. They pit different divisions to outdo each other. And if you want resources from corporate, then fight for them.

Grant: There’s a time and a place for rivalry. We know that having a common enemy can be a huge source of motivation. But if that enemy has knowledge that you need, or if you actually share a common goal with them, then there’s a real cost. There’s some great research by Gavin Kilduff [of New York University] and his colleagues showing that when you’re competing against a rival, you are more likely to do whatever it takes to reach the goal, even if that means backstabbing, unethical behavior, stealing, cheating. And so there’s a risk that people will cut corners here. And then, of course, you’re not going to learn from each other. So I watched “Severance” thinking, “OK, there’s got to be expertise that Burt has that Mark and his team could benefit from.” But they don’t know what that is. And it’s not till Irving strikes up a friendship with Burt that we start to realize, “Hey, wait a minute, these people can actually help each other.” And so one of my big worries when we see these kinds silos is that the whole is ultimately going to end up being less than the sum of the parts.

Brancaccio: Yeah, exactly. I don’t know if you know this, but they filmed “Severance” — the ominous corporation Lumon is filmed in the old offices of Bell Labs down in Holmdel, New Jersey. And Bell Labs, this incredible research institution in its day, really worked hard to break down those silos, to set up actually the architecture of that building so that people would meet and not just get stuck in whatever little corner their division was.

Grant: Yeah, I actually didn’t know that the show was filmed at the headquarters of Bell Labs, which is ironic on so many levels. I think Bell was a classic example of encouraging people from all kinds of different specialties to run into each other in the hallways, to have lunch together. And there are many, many stories from the history of Bell about how people who didn’t even overlap at all in their expertise would bump into each other and then generate ideas that ultimately solve big problems in the world. And in many ways, that was, I think, the inspiration for Steve Jobs to design Pixar’s building the way he did, to try to facilitate these creative collisions where you had to get up and actually cross paths with another department on your way to the bathroom or to lunch.

I think this makes a lot of sense. But we should not forget that there’s nothing about a creative collision that requires spontaneity. You don’t have to randomly run into someone in order to generate ideas with them. We can actually structure those interactions, and there was a great example recently. Just take salespeople randomly assigned to just have lunch with a co-worker they’ve never met once a week. And they do that for a month. Four months later, those two salespeople each have on average 24% higher revenue. Because guess what? When you meet somebody for lunch who has complementary knowledge, you end up giving each other advice, you end up learning from each other. And I’d love to see more workplaces actually try to structure those unstructured interactions.

Brancaccio: Very good advice. Now you’re being such a good sport, professor, allow me one more. In the show, some contraband shows up at this office. It’s a self-help book, pretty corny one, that prompts a kind of employee awakening. I don’t want to give up any secrets in the show, but an employee awakening. Here are a couple choice quotations from the book:

“A society with festering workers cannot flourish, just as a man with rotting toes cannot skip.”

“What separates man from machine is that machines cannot think for themselves. Also, they are made of metal, whereas man is made of skin.”

“If you are a soldier, do not fight for my freedom. Fight for the freedom of the soldier fighting next to you. This will make the war more inspiring for you both.”

Brancaccio: Now they’re making fun here. But, Adam, you write real books on these subjects, bestsellers translated into dozens of languages. How much did the book in the show make you cringe?

Grant: Oh, there was no cringing, it was hysterical. Ricken Hale is hands down the best character in the show, in my opinion. And he’s such a great caricature of everything that self-help gurus do wrong with these nonsensical aphorisms. I think sometimes, I guess there were moments, there were a couple of them that made me cringe, because I thought, “That can actually appear in a self-help book,” and it would be packaged as profound even though it’s snake oil. You know, I think that was one of my big problems, David, with self-help is, if the industry was successful, it probably would have put itself out of business. I would actually love it if bookstores, instead of the self-help section had a “help others” section which taught us all how to be better coaches, better teachers, better friends to the people who are navigating problems that we care about. And, you know, I haven’t seen that section crop up yet, but we can hope, and ideally, it would actually be grounded in rigorous evidence as opposed to quackery.

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