Workplace Happiness and the Jewish Question

by Hal M. Lewis

“Utility with all her arithmetic very often miscalculates.”
John Sanderson

For the past several months, The Chronicle of Philanthropy has reported on a growing and troubling trend – the increasing unhappiness among nonprofit organizational employees. In two recent surveys of not-for-profit professionals seventy percent of respondents said that their jobs were either disappointing or only somewhat fulfilling. Fully twenty-five percent of those surveyed said they were considering looking for a job outside the nonprofit world.

The data on Jewish communal professionals are even more discouraging. Talented young Jews, even those with excellent Jewish educations and sensibilities, are opting for careers in the private sector. Those who have served Jewish organizations are burning out prematurely and opting to leave the field altogether. The resulting brain drain means that many of the best and the brightest in the Jewish world are either not looking seriously at entering the field, or are exiting before ever having the chance to make their mark.

To be sure, not-for-profits are experiencing something of a crisis lately. Payrolls have been cut, organizations have been shuttered, foundations are sunsetting, and innovative startup ventures are being starved out of existence. For anyone working in nonprofits, all of this is surely disruptive and unsettling. Communal professionals can hardly be blamed for wanting to protect their families and build a career that provides security and opportunity going forward. But before jumping to the conclusion that simply increasing wages and benefits will ameliorate the rising unhappiness among nonprofit employees, a more thoughtful analysis is required.

In his groundbreaking work Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Daniel Pink repudiates the notion that high levels of career dissatisfaction result from the so-called profit motive. Pink’s findings suggest that, except in the most extreme of cases, financial rewards do not lead to greater results or greater happiness. Workplace happiness is driven not by extrinsic considerations, but by intrinsic factors, identified by Pink as: autonomy mastery, and purpose. Thus, people are happy when they have some influence and control over their work – autonomy; when they grow and develop as professionals, improving their performance and acquiring new skills – mastery; and when they believe that the work they do matters, that their days are spent in service to something larger than themselves – purpose.

Like Daniel Pink, Harvard University psychologist, Howard Gardner suggests that the issue of workplace unhappiness cannot be explained simply by externalities. He faults a fixation on the three M’s – Money, Market, and Me. “The unvarnished market model – everything can and should be counted, ranked, bought and sold – has brainwashed the culture.” Gardner distinguishes between what he calls, a good job and good work. In his construct, having a good job that pays well, has high status, and comes with many of the trappings of power is no guarantee of happiness. In contrast, good work that is excellent in quality, socially responsible, and meaningful to its practitioners is far more likely to bring with it a sense of joy and fulfillment.

If organizations in the Jewish community are failing to attract and retain some of the best in the business, they should explore what makes for good work and strive to foster a sense of autonomy, mastery and purpose among their professionals, rather than mistakenly focusing only on the extrinsic measurements associated with good jobs. When organizational structures glorify consensus and disincentivize bold decision making, when systems and supervisors expect little and keep the bar low, and when governance stifles growth and penalizes risk taking, a generation of unhappy professionals is sure to follow.

Moreover, not-for-profits committed to growing their professionals and engendering a productive and satisfying work environment must acknowledge the pernicious impact the three M’s have had on their sector as well as the corporate arena. Shameless pursuit of for-profit values as a means of placating donors has not produced happier employees or more effective campaigns. Nor have the wholesale embrace of corporate metrics, the apotheosis of business principles, or the pervasive acceptance of the myth that nonprofits would be far more effective if only they ran things like a business. Trying to become something one is not is hardly the way to find happiness. The great teacher of leadership, Peter Drucker, cautioned nonprofits against trying to emulate the corporate sector. Not- for-profits, taught Drucker, have their own metrics. “The bottom line of every social sector, nonprofit organization,” he said, “is changing lives,” something easily lost in the quest to behave like a business.

Those troubled by the current state of workplace unhappiness in the Jewish community can look to Howard Gardner’s research for an alternate approach. Says Gardner, the three M’s need to be flipped on their sides. Money, Market, and Me, must morph into the three E’s of Excellence, Engagement, and Ethics. In ways that mirror Daniel Pink’s findings about autonomy, mastery, and purpose, Gardner asserts that when individuals bring excellence to their work, when they are fully engaged and passionate, and when the highest standards of ethics inform all that they do, then workplace happiness follows logically.

Not-for-profits wishing to reverse the downward happiness spiral among employees, might take a page as well from the late Steve Jobs, who when asked how he would measure his own success, said nothing about stock options, net worth, or the size of his empire. Said Jobs, “I want to make a ding in the universe. Nonprofit leaders must distinguish between extrinsic and intrinsic motivations, between good jobs and good work. Salaries and status matter, but in and of themselves they will not guarantee happy or productive employees. For this a different kind of not-for-profit must be crafted, one that no longer impersonates the corporate world by confusing happiness with the 3 M’s of money, market and me, and embraces instead a culture of the 3 E’s – excellence, engagement, and ethics. Nonprofits marked by a commitment to providing their professionals the autonomy, mastery, and sense of purpose necessary to achieve real happiness within and beyond the workplace.

Dr. Hal M. Lewis is the President and Chief Executive Officer of Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies in Chicago and a recognized authority on Jewish leadership. This article is adapted from his Commencement Address given in December 2011 to the inaugural Canadian cohort of Spertus’ Master of Arts in Jewish Professional Studies.