Caring about what you do

This week we have a guest post from David DeBrot, Manager of the Learning Skills Unit, RMIT Vietnam. The team at LSU run a blog (www.lsuvietnam.com) with a focus on the student experience of tertiary study.

Visit the blog and watch a video they created to explain their role on campus here

Fruit stacked at a market, Vung Tau

Fruit stacked at a market, Vung Tau, morgueFile.com (cc)

‘An organization is not an entity of its own – it is a group of individuals.’

It’s a strength, not a weakness

What is it that separates people with talent and opportunity who achieve quality outcomes from those who also have talent and opportunity but don’t achieve in the same ways? I would suggest it’s the ‘C’ word – care (that is, to feel interest or concern). To care is the god particle of human enterprise – it makes all other individual effort possible.

The quote above is from my former colleague and it continues to follow me around campus, to meetings, during informal discussions and in response to e-mails. It remains with me because of its power in recognizing the potential of individuals to enact real change at any organization, universities included. I also see it in the team I work with – they talk about what they care about and the change they want to see. And a big part of making any change happen is caring that it does happen.

But it hurts

Caring about what you do is frequently self-eroding. A quick thought experiment can illustrate this. Imagine you care about something getting done well. Would you put more effort into it? Would you have high expectations for the outcomes of your effort? And if you became even more invested in the outcome and your level of caring increased, would the levels of effort and expectation increase as well?

Your answer, combined with the philosopher Seneca’s view on anger, reveals an interesting conclusion. If you answered ‘yes’ to these questions, consider Seneca’s definition of anger: it is the gap or distance between your expectations and reality. Meaning, if you care and your expectations increase and reality doesn’t match these, then you may be disappointed or angry and hesitate to care more in future.

Caring hurts sometimes, but it can also make ‘work’ a lot less – well – work. It can make your 9-5 more enjoyable, easier to invest in and more rewarding. Rather than occupying a significant part of your day and week with activities whose outcomes you may not have much interest in, the same time could be spent engaging in these activities with effort you genuinely expect to deliver some positive outcomes – be it intrinsic or extrinsic. This could shift your experience of ‘work’ from a (perhaps unpleasant) distraction from things in life you really care about to a spectrum of what you care about, made up partly of your working hours, which can be rewarding professionally, personally or both.

It takes a village

Being able to care does require some tending from others. First, feeling that others above you and next to you also care about similar things – and dare I say it – you. If no one seems bothered about what you’re doing or how well you do it, then your interest in investing more energy will likely decrease. Often this isn’t the case and people do care about what you’re working on, but they are afraid to say so. See this Harvard Business Review article for the commonplace of negativity at work and the importance of appreciation.

Second, we must observe that cynicism is not a norm in our organization. In other words, we need to see that the majority of the people around us can be open, frank and realistic when discussing an idealistic or optimistic future goal or vision without also being expected to snark and naysay. And when we demonstrate our care for a project or issue, we need others to recognize this.

Third, we must have a good model. Someone who is comfortable speaking about their own care or commitment on an issue and attempts to get other people to do the same. It helps if this person is also in a supervisory or leadership role and is aware enough of their own actions and context to avoid causing people not to care.

But what if they just don’t care

  • Don’t waste time caring about people who clearly don’t care. Perhaps they don’t know what they’re doing at your organization or why they’re there. This could be a cause for their apparent lack of care.
  • Be aware of your expectations – if you are contributing a lot more care and effort than others, there is likely to be a gap between your expectations of the outcomes and reality. A healthy trimming of expectations may reduce disappointment later and reserve your energy and care for other areas or projects.
  • Talk with those you are working with about what you do care about as individuals and a group. Language such as ‘invested’, ‘interested’ and ‘matters to me’ can be used if ‘care’ is too touchy-feely for you.
  • Ask people directly if they care about something. See what happens. You can always rephrase with ‘Do you want (x,y,z) to succeed?’, ‘Are you interested in this?’, ‘Does it bother you if this doesn’t succeed?’.
  • Caring is a strength not a weakness – be ready for warfare from those who are cynical, consistently negative or combative – The Art of War and The Prince are two particularly useful books for anyone in any organization who may come up against these types.
  • It is often easier to make someone not care than to care. Be careful that you are not willingly doing the former as both are infectious.

If you accept causal determinism, and that caring about something leads to greater effort, then the link between how we act on what we care about and the result seems to be strong. Given that universities are working largely with ideas and people, it would be hard to confine or measure just how far your care and the results can travel.

If you’ve read this far, it seems you care – at least a little. And now you’ve just got to show it.

Share your thoughts and comments below!

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