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In Practice

The Importance of Service-Oriented Work

Author Tom Rath is best known for his bestselling book, StrengthsFinder 2.0, which has been used by organizations around the world to help employees uncover their talents. 

In his latest book, Life’s Great Question, Mr. Rath argues that the ultimate goal of work should be more about service and less about the self. 

BRINK: A lot of people in different walks of life have identified service as an important element of the work we do. What are the insights that you bring to that conversation that are different or unique?

Tom Rath: A lot of time, attention and financial resources have been spent helping leaders and managers in organizations focus on their own self development and personal development and understand their talents, their personality and their passions. And, in a workplace context in particular, a lot of that effort has been too inwardly focused on the self, and perhaps we haven’t spent enough time looking at how the things each person does within their current job and paid work is of service to another person, to a team, to an organization or to a community. 

So, one thing I’m trying to do with this latest work is challenge people to step back whenever they form groups or teams in organizations and say, here’s who I am. But most importantly, based on who I am, here’s how each of us can uniquely contribute to a given effort. And here’s how that will make a difference for other people. So often, we just get wrapped up in the things we’re doing at work that we don’t take the time to connect it back to how it makes a meaningful difference for someone.

BRINK: You say that “following your passion” can be misguided. Why do you think that? Because that’s something that obviously comes up a lot in human development.

Mr. Rath: When you follow your passion, or even sometimes when you follow your own personality, that essentially assumes that you are placing yourself at the center of the world and that all of the world’s needs must start revolving around you. 

And, what I’ve found in looking at the huge mismatch, macroeconomically, between workers and the employment markets around the world is that there’s a lot more opportunity for growth if we start with the outcome, or the dependent variable, of what people get paid to do around the world and what our communities need. 

Then you can work back from that point and connect your talents and your passions, instead of starting with everything falling into line around who you are, essentially. That gets back to what you referred to earlier about service. Sometimes there’s a misconception that our service to the community needs to occur in addition to, or outside of, the work that we get paid to do on a daily basis. And based on everything I’ve looked at, I would argue that most of the service we give and add to our communities occurs in the context of our job.

It is important for us to step back and take the work that we do each day and our efforts at large to a more personal relationship-driven mindset.

BRINK: I could imagine a team leader saying, “If I let someone do what they’re really passionate about, they’ll end up being a better employee or better team member.” Do you agree?

Mr. Rath: Well, they might just be a better golfer or a better chess player. The danger of passion is that we’re all passionate about a lot of things that don’t necessarily serve a big, important purpose. And they don’t even necessarily make another person’s life any better when you engage in those activities. 

Spending time in areas you’re passionate about is a good thing, but I’m not sure that it’s the best outcome to start with.

BRINK: How does this idea of giving to the community or a wider group help an executive mobilize their team?

Mr. Rath: It starts at a very pragmatic level. So often, when an executive brings a team together, the team is formed based on people who are interested in a topic or have expressed interest, for example. And what you end up with is a group of often like-minded people with similar talents and passions and then they all get together and say, oh yeah, we should do this. 

You need to ensure that for any given group that you’re a part of — and this changes with each team you join — that you’re having the discussion to say, here’s how I’d like to apply who I am to contribute to this given effort. And if someone else has the same response, then you might need to do something that’s a little out of your comfort zone in the context of that given team because there’s already someone who’s said they’re going to take on that portion of what the team needs to do.

BRINK: You have a chapter called Pushing Your Personality, which is an interesting phrase. What do you mean by that?

Mr. Rath: What I mean is that, in the past, a lot of the work I’ve been associated with, on strengths in particular, has led people to think that people don’t really change that much. And for the most part, talents are stable over time, but even for someone like me who’s more introverted on most personality measures, it’s probably a good thing for me to push myself outside of that introverted zone a little bit, instead of using it as a crutch to opt out of social situations and settings where I might find a lot of enjoyment and growth. 

While I don’t think it’s smart for people to say that they just want to change their entire personality over a short period of time, I do think it may be helpful to challenge yourself to push on the margins to try things you might not have.

BRINK: As you know, something that’s consuming more and more companies around the world is this fourth revolution with changes to the workplace because of AI and other technologies. It raises, at least in more pessimistic scenarios, the prospect of a lot of people actually not having work at all and possibly not even having much meaningful day-to-day activity. How do your ideas fit into that? 

Mr. Rath: It’s important for us to step back and take the work that we do each day and our efforts at large to a more personal relationship-driven mindset. Part of why I wrote this book was due to my inspiration from Dr. Martin Luther King when he said, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: What are you doing for others?” 

I’ve used that question on a daily basis to try to orient my efforts. Instead of just responding to all of the stuff flying at me with rings and dings and emails in a given day, how do I contribute to something more meaningful? And when I start thinking about that personally, I know that the most meaningful contribution I can make tomorrow is to spend an hour or two with my son or my daughter — working on something my daughter’s writing or a math or science project my son’s working on.

That’s a commonality we all share: In almost any walk of life, you can contribute to a relationship and the growth and development of another human being tomorrow. And when you look at that foundational level, even as technology automates more tasks into the future, we will continue to have a very relationship-driven economy, community and world. And as long as you can continue to get better and better at investing in the growth of those relationships, you should be in a pretty good place.

Tom Rath

Author and Researcher

Tom Rath is an author and researcher who has spent the past two decades studying how work can improve human health and well-being. His 10 books have sold more than 10 million copies. His book StrengthsFinder 2.0 is Amazon’s top selling non-fiction book of all time. During his 13 years at Gallup, Tom led the organization’s strengths, employee engagement, wellbeing, and leadership consulting worldwide.

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