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Workplace Happiness and the Jewish Question

Workplace Happiness and the Jewish Question

The commencement address given December 11, 2011, to the inaugural Canadian cohort of Spertus' acclaimed Master of Arts in Jewish Professional Studies program.

By Spertus President & CEO Dr. Hal M. Lewis

For the past two months, the highly respected Chronicle of Philanthropy has been reporting on a growing and troubling trend  — the increasing unhappiness and frustration 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, in disciplines ranging from education to fundraising, 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. Thus, it seems that the rising unhappiness among nonprofit employees can be explained without too much mystery. If we hope to reverse the trend, it
would appear that we need to address below-market wages and substandard benefits.

Notwithstanding the convenience of such a facile response, however, the truth is far more nuanced.

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 challenge us with evidence that, except in the most extreme of cases, financial rewards do not lead to greater results or greater happiness. In fact, despite the popular belief that extrinsic motivators — money, power, and status — are all-important, they do not drive happiness. The real motivating factors, according to the research, are intrinsic motives identified by Pink and others 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.

It is, I would argue, the absence of a sense of autonomy, mastery, and purpose that accounts for high levels of discontent and frustration among communal professionals rather than the putatively low compensation packages. To the degree that the nonprofit system actually discourages autonomy, mastery, and purpose, we are sealing our own fates. Organizational structures that glorify consensus and disincentivize bold decision making, systems and supervisors that expect little and keep the bar low, and governance that stifles growth and penalizes risk taking — these are bound to produce a generation of unhappy professionals.

Harvard University psychologist Howard Gardner is one of the leading thinkers on happiness in the work place. His findings, like Daniel Pink’s, suggest that the issue of workplace unhappiness cannot be explained simply by external factors. Gardner
encourages people to think deeply about the differences between what he calls, a good job and good work. In Gardner’s 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, he says, 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 our organizations in the Jewish community are failing to attract and/or retain some of the best in the business, we should be looking more at what makes for good work, than mistakenly focusing only on the extrinsic measurements associated with good jobs.

Professor Gardner points to the widespread but fallacious belief that happiness comes from 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,” argues Gardner. “We’ve lost our sense of values. Success is being evaluated in one dimension only, and that is getting wealthy at all costs.” Far from effectuating happiness, this focus on the three M’s — Money, Market, and Me — is responsible for the frustration, unhappiness, and even misery associated with the contemporary workplace.

But what, you might ask, do Money, Market, and Me have to do with the rising unhappiness among communal professionals? After all, none of us is in this business for the salary. We are not governed by traditional market forces. And selflessness is the
nonprofit ideal. The truth, of course, is not that simple. Notwithstanding differences in lexicon, our field has also begun to fixate on the three M’s. Social sector veterans have observed for some time the steady metamorphosis in the nonprofit value system. Not all that long ago, the graduate degree of choice, for aspiring communal executives was a Masters in Social Work or an MA in Jewish communal studies of some sort. Today, an increasing number of nonprofit professionals, including those in the educational sector, are being warned that without a business degree their career opportunities will be limited.

Where once it was important to understand how to work with people, today you better know how to read a spreadsheet and hold your own with investment strategists if you want to succeed as a not-for-profit CEO. Once, raising money was about touching a donor’s soul, today don’t expect to be taken seriously unless you understand deferred-giving vehicles and the intricacies of financial resource development. And if you cannot speak with your lay leaders about accountability and metrics, outcomes and deliverables, you better expect to hear the rallying cry that “it’s time we ran things like a business around here.”

And, in many cases, behaving like a business is exactly what we have started to do. Indeed, we have become quite adept at aping the world of corporate metrics, never fully understanding that, as the 19th-century American essayist John Sanderson said, “Utility with all her arithmetic very often miscalculates.” Yet, in an effort to be just like a business, we have jumped unapologetically onto the metrics bandwagon. We measure everything. Not only campaign achievements but rates of increase, annual returns on our endowments, and overhead as a percentage of our annual budgets. We track membership numbers, intermarriage rates, and student enrollments. We monitor demographics and attitudinal shifts, population figures and giving histories, connections and affiliations. At our national conferences we invite management consultants to help us determine what our customers want. We scrutinize our bottom lines, assess our technological capacities, and seek to grow our market share. More and more we have become just like businesses, consumed by raising our profitability and our brand awareness.

None of this, it seems, has made nonprofit employees any happier or any more productive. Trying to become something we are 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, said Drucker, have their own metrics. “The bottom line of every social sector, nonprofit organization,” he said, “is changing lives” something we lose sight of in our quest to behave like a business.

If fixating on the three M’s, even in the social sector, undercuts happiness in the workplace, then wherein lies a solution? For Howard Gardner, the three M’s must be flipped on their sides. Money, Market, and Me, must morph into the three E’s of Excellence, Engagement, and Ethics. In ways that complement Daniel Pink’s findings about the importance of autonomy, mastery, and purpose, Gardner’s research asserts that when individuals bring excellence to their work, including a commitment to ongoing learning and continued self-improvement, when they are engaged in and passionate about their work because it matters to them and to those around them, and when the highest standards of ethics and morality inform all that they do, then workplace happiness follows logically.

So where does this leave us on this day of your commencement? While it may seem aspirational today, the likelihood is that in the next few years all of you will be running departments, agencies, even institutions in the Jewish community. That means that you have the opportunity to bring about an end to the downward happiness spiral currently plaguing our field. Doing so means creating work environments in which autonomy, mastery, and purpose are the norm; in which excellence, engagement and ethics predominate. In the Babylonian Talmud, tractate of Sanhedrin, the second-century rabbinic sage Rabbi Meir taught, “One who studies Torah, but does not teach it, despises the word of the Lord.” True learning, as Rabbi Meir understood, must be a transformative experience.

The purpose of your Masters degree is not only learning in its academic or theoretical sense. For your experience in this program to reach its full flower, you must apply what you have learned in your communal work. In the nonprofit organizations you run, you must insist on excellence, affirming that good enough is never good enough, and demanding that those who work for you be every bit as talented and skilled as the best in the for-profit world without ever losing site of our own value system. You must accept nothing less than professionals who, like you, are fully engaged because that is what it takes to transform the world. And you must affirm in word and in deed, in and out of the office, that nothing you do matters more than your own integrity, than the ethical framework you embrace and expect of others.

When the late Steve Jobs was asked how he would measure his own success, his answer had nothing to do with stock options, net worth, or the size of his empire. Said Jobs, “I want to make a ding in the universe.” In the nonprofit agencies you lead, you must decide what impact you want to have, what success will look like for you and your team going forward. It will be up to you to 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 we need to build a different kind of not-for-profit, 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. The organizations we serve, the communities we seek to build, the colleagues we aspire to nurture, and, indeed, the professionals we hope to yet become, deserve nothing less.

Mazal tov to each of you and to your families. Thank you.

© Dr. Hal M. Lewis

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Dr. Hal M. Lewis

Dr. Hal M. Lewis is the President and Chief Executive Officer of Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership. A recognized expert on Jewish leadership, he has published widely in the scholarly and popular press. His books include Models and Meanings in the History of Jewish Leadership and From Sanctuary to Boardroom: A Jewish Approach to Leadership. He can be reached at