The secret to having a job where you can make a difference

29 June 2016

Happy worker

Decades ago, I got to know Pete Brown, who was the author of the novel “Smallcreep’s Day.” It was a story about how a gentle factory worker, having spent all his life operating his machine in an enormous factory, decided to set out to discover what actually was the end product that came out at the other end.

It was a surreal, entertaining adventure that he wrote when working in such a factory in Stroud. It reflected the disconnect people who are ‘small cogs in large machines’ can often have when it comes to the meaning of what they do.

That was back in the day when it was considered enough to have a job with a wage attached. Now, we have become more ambitious for how we spend our time. In particular, a lot of us now expect to have a social purpose through the work that we do.

Some such people get to take on jobs that have ‘corporate social responsibility’ in the title. It’s usually pretty obvious how such a job can help make a difference in the world.

The start of making a difference in the world is to look at what you do and think ‘how does this benefit the world?'

Sometimes I get asked whether you have to get a job in CSR to make a contribution – and the answer to that is absolutely not.

The next question is usually “what’s my next step? Because right now I’m stuck in a dead end job, as an estate agent, or a school dinner cook, or a digital marketing assistant”, or whatever it may be.

The answer to that question is that you start right where you are, doing exactly what you’re doing.

What is the social purpose of what you do? If you’re in a larger company, and you see yourself as that small cog in a large machine – what is the good work that the machine does as a result of your contribution?

If your answer is “nothing – it’s a dead end job that has no value” then you’re probably wrong. Let’s take the examples of ‘dead-end jobs’ listed above.

An estate agent – you’re there to help people to find the place that will become their home, and to help others to sell their existing home so they can take their next move. There’s not much more important to people, especially families, than their home. Do your job well, you have a lasting impact on people’s lives. Do it badly, and the same – just not in a good way.

A school dinner cook – you’re helping to feed members of the next generation. There’s lots of evidence that good nutrition helps children to learn better at school, as well as giving them better health and vigour. And you never know where a good start in life could take any number of the youngsters that pass through over the years. It doesn’t get more important than this!

A digital marketing assistant – lots of good companies selling worthwhile products are losing out in the face of the digital giants simply because they don’t understand how the new medium works. Helping good people to make money online in a responsible and ethical but successful way makes a huge difference to all sorts of companies, and helps to create jobs and so on.

All three of those example jobs could be done with minimum engagement, purely following the financial incentives and doing no more than required, and they would become drudge work. Unfortunately, this is the norm, if my experience is anything to go by. 

All three of those example jobs could be done with a vision of what is the benefit they deliver to people, and carried out with a view to making the most of those benefits.

And by and large, we find that when people do that, they actually become more successful in meeting those financial metrics that may be (if you’re unlucky in who you’ve ended up with as an employer) the only thing the boss cares about.

There is plenty of evidence that the sales person who takes time to genuinely understand your needs, even to the point where they will advise you accordingly if you would be better served going somewhere else, ultimately becomes the highest performing sales person.

Because people trust them. Because integrity is a key part of building relationships.

I’ve met some of those people as well. They can be inspiring people to know. I will always give them my business given the choice.

So the start of making a difference in the world is to look at what you do and think ‘how does this benefit the world?’ Don’t put in the minimum effort you can get away with, put in the maximum care and attention to bring that potential benefit to life. In so doing, you will start a chain reaction that will take you exactly where you want to go.

Why? Because you’re already taking the attitude that helps you to get on.

There are people who reluctantly pick at their work because they think it’s beneath them and so they’re not going to give it their best until they get something that is better.

Those people never get promoted, because they communicate a poor attitude and work ethic – so the more interesting work they crave remains out of reach.

People who dive into their work, focus on the real outcomes they’re supposed to deliver and get excited about using the process to help people – they are the ones that get asked to take the next step.

So, of course, there are all sorts of ways you can get to make a difference at work in addition to your core job. If the company has any kind of employee volunteering programme, you can get involved with that. If it has a CSR team, then you can engage with them about some of the issues they’re working on, and become a CSR champion within the workplace.

But it starts with your core business. However humble a job you think you’ve got, it’s a hugely different role depending on whether you’re carrying it out to add value to the world, or simply to carry home the pay slip at the end of the month.

As always, the choice is yours.