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Ian Buckingham

Brand Engaged

Chief Executive

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Book Review: The why of work by Ulrich & Ulrich

The initial response many people will have to the Ulrichs’ book title will be to focus on the ‘why’ and ‘work’ words.
They will then contrast them with the increasing pressure they probably feel at the moment to simply keep the show on the road, before reaching for the ‘Ten Minute Manager’ or some other similarly pragmatic and less esoteric title.
I have a strong suspicion that a large cadre of senior managers believe that the answer to the question is “because I pay you to” anyway.
As an author myself, I can appreciate the lag between the genesis of a concept for a book and its publication. Whatever the rationale behind it, however, the timing of the title’s launch seems, on the face of it, to be at odds with the current business climate.
Most people are likely to have shuffled several rungs down Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and will be more obsessed with finding and retaining paid work than getting involved in any inner dialogue about why they should work in the first place.
Are we really expected to believe that “recessions of meaning” hurt more than “economic recessions”? Try telling that to the folk who can’t buy their kids new shoes.
Largely as a consequence of the timing, this raises the first major question for me: are the Ulrichs adding value to the target readership or are they, as Mr Dylan put it, simply “blowing in the wind”?
The second significant question that I had at the forefront of my mind while reading it was: has this type of management book simply had its day?
Who’s listening?
In the first instance, I believe that the Ulrichs have a damn good stab at making a business case for considering the ‘why’. In this regard, they are keeping company with many of the major research houses that have come to similar conclusions.
They point, as others do, to the market value of intangible assets and the track record of business leaders who value soft skills. But the trouble they face is that the market is saturated with studies making the same point.
And why, given all of this attention, are employee engagement levels still at record low levels? Clearly, boardrooms continue to say one thing while doing another, safe in the knowledge that it’s an employer’s market and staff can either ‘like it or lump it’.
Will this book shift that ‘dog in a manger’ mentality? It may help… a bit. Even if change has to come one leader at a time, any change at all has to be a good thing.
The hardest-hitting business case behind the Ulrichs’ core thesis is that people and businesses are more effective when they understand the ‘why’ of work. But this argument makes its appearance well into the book, when David Ulrich shares an anecdote about the banking crisis and the counter-capitalist bailout process.
When asked his opinion of the situation, he points to the elephant in the room in the shape of the glaring absence of action to address the root cause of the problem: “If the holes are not fixed or people’s lives are not put in order, bailouts accomplish little,” he says.
Wise words indeed. But again, who is listening? David makes the link between individual behaviour, corporate culture, work and home life. Yet all of the political talk is focused on structural and legislative change.
Different world
This book implies that a culture in which leaders think as hard about the ‘how’ as they do the ‘what’; where people create rather than exploit relationships and where colleagues examine their own motivations, values and style as well as the qualities of others, helps to address the root causes of the economic malaise. I couldn’t agree more.
Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl sums this cause-and-effect relationship up (as he tends to), much more effectively with a single poignant phrase quoted from Nietzsche: “He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how”. The worry is that the current focus remains firmly on suffering rather than enabling the ‘why’ and on “bearing” rather than re-framing and re-focusing it.
So to summarise my first conclusion, it feels like this book was conceived several years ago and has been launched into a very different world. No, the Ulrichs aren’t simply blowing in the wind – no more than we brave few who are engagement advocates. And we’re right, as the case studies in the book suggest.
But it takes a brave person, a very affluent person or a champion with nothing left to lose to stake their future on asking “why work?” at the moment when, sadly, only the most visionary of chief executives and HR directors will be planning particularly far ahead.
All the evidence points to the fact that those who do inspire, engage and innovate at the bottom of the cycle will, ultimately, get and stay ahead. I saw this happen several times during the last recession so there is some blue sky on an otherwise gloomy horizon.
But this is also where my second question creeps in: is this the best format in which to make the case or has this type of management book had its day?
It has to be said that, as business books go, this isn’t the most engaging or entertaining read. I’m sure I’m not the only person who finds the practice of creating new terms to describe old concepts irritating, but there’s plenty of that in here, for example, the strangely hyperbolic notion of “abundance” as yet another spin on the wearisome ‘value proposition’.
Values-based collaboration
There are some unique case studies included, however, featuring nation states such as Bhutan and there are also one or two interesting allusions to different things. But all in all, it’s relatively dry fare.
On a deeper level, given the timing of the launch and the state of the US economy in particular, there will be those who question whether US management gurus still command the same levels of respect that they once did. They may also question whether readers will be prepared to buy into the commoditisation of intellectual property epitomised by this type of literature-led consultancy product.
But in an age when the term ‘relationship’ has been so devalued that it has become a by-word for sales, it’s reassuring to see such an intimate, values-based and heartfelt collaboration.
  • Because the Ulrichs clearly believe in addressing the humanistic cause in order to influence the commercial effect
  • They champion upstream thinking rather than just downstream survival
  • They believe in engaging employees through conversation rather than command, control, cascade and spin.
I recently happened upon two choice quotes during the course of my workaday consultancy. The first is from a chief executive: “I have plenty of emotional intelligence…I just choose to ignore that voice most of the time”.
The second is from an HR director who confided privately: “The mistake many people make is that when I say “I understand”, they somehow hear “I care”.
I think we can all see the dilemma that the Ulrichs faced when they wrote this book. While I would like to see more of their philosophy role-modelled in the style and structure of their writing, it is clear that leaders could benefit from reading it, soaking its words up attentively and with some quiet humility.
Let’s face it, few business and political leaders have too much to be arrogant about right now and the majority could, quite frankly, do with all the help they can get.
  • The reviewer this time was Ian Buckingham is chief executive of HR and employer brand consultancies, Bring Yourself 2 Work and Brand Engaged. He has also written two books of his own – {C}









    Brand Engagement and Brand Champions.

  • If you’d like to read a book and pen a review for, please go to the Book club page and email [email protected] with your choice to get started.
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Ian Buckingham

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