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The Human Side of Work

September 5, 2017

Last week I came upon an exhibit in Chicago's Harold Washington Library called Working in America. Full of beautiful images from photojournalist Lynsey Addario, Working In America is a "multi-platform documentary initiative chronicling the everyday challenges, triumphs and realities of working."

The project gives a view into the lives of 24 Americans: a retired oil field worker, a Lyft driver, a high school principal, and others. The concept is a riff on the work of Studs Terkel, whose 1974 book Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do was a novel and fascinating glimpse into the trials and tribulations of the American worker.

Both Turkel's work and this exhibit by Project& highlight the many contrasts and similarities across the common human struggle. While themes of inequality, economic access and social policy abound, there is a subtle undercurrent of people finding brights spots of personal satisfaction and pride even in dark circumstances.

While I was immersed in the showcase, one quote in particular hammered home a connection to the work I focus on. Jane M. Saks, the creator and artistic director of Project&, explains: "There are no average human beings and everyone is the authentic expert of their own life."

As Todd Rose explains convincingly in The End of Average, we've too long oppressed individuality in the search for standardization. 'Average' becomes the basis for all comparison, where it's best to be like everyone else, only better. We reduce each other to credit scores, income brackets, and SAT scores, and then bucket the results into stereotypes.

The result sterility is costly. By reducing people to inputs of labor, where individual capabilities are seen as deviations, we sacrifice a great deal of our own potential.

The challenges faced by these 24 Americans (and all others) are numerous and complex, but the learnings from these works can be leveraged in surprisingly simple ways. In our work in hiring, for example, we focus on the details of a business's needs when scoping out a potential role. Rather than reduce a complex situation (the business circumstances) to an average (a generic job post), the key is to map the team's unique needs and context to the unique skills and interests of an ideal candidate. Todd Rose would refer to this concept as matching the jaggedness of the two parties.

The devil is in the details

Much like a key in a lock, only when that jaggedness is recognized and embraced can the resulting combination be truly fulfilling for both parties. Without even realizing it, most organizations make this impossible, looking for that candidate that looks like the average, only better. They end up hiring average employees rather than human beings that are authentic experts of their own potential.

As advances in technology and education can lead to more nuanced understanding of skills and abilities, like competency-based credentials, I hope that we are able to again value the potential of individuality at scale. But first, we must have an inherent respect for individuality itself, and the rest will follow. 

Hats off to the Project& team for sharing this message.

Chris Rosenbaum
Chris has long focused on unlocking the potential of people in organizations. His experience includes a variety of start-up and corporate leadership posts, many in the field of education, with more recent roles ranging from M&A work to COO of a marketing firm.