It was a sweltering July day in Vegas, so of course the conference room was freezing. The participants of my “Conscious Business” workshop pulled their jackets tight and grimaced. They weren’t just cold; they were pissed off. They looked at me icily. I knew what they were thinking.

I’ve been in situations like this many times. More often than not, typical managers welcome me as warmly as they would an onset of flu. It’s as if we’re all stuck in some Dilbert cartoon, and I can read the thought bubbles appearing over everyone’s heads.

What the hell are we doing here? one guy was thinking. I’ve got work to do!

Another bullshit workshop, thought someone else. I hate this stuff.

I decided to play into their worst fears. “Let’s start with an ice-breaker!” I said in my cheeriest, most workshop-y voice. “Find someone you don’t know and introduce yourself. Be sure to tell your partner what your job is.” I could hear their mental groans as they all turned to their neighbors.

After three painful minutes, I asked for their attention. “Who would like to share?” I asked sweetly, as if I were totally unaware of how much I was annoying them. Nobody answered, of course. “You two, please,” I called on a pair. “Tell us your partner’s name and job.”

“His name is John. He’s in legal,” the woman said.

“Her name is Sandra,” said John. “She runs marketing campaigns.”

“Wrong,” I said. Sandra and John looked puzzled, as did everyone else.

Then, Vegas style, I challenged everyone in the room to a wager: “I bet each one of you a hundred dollars that you don’t know what your job is. And that it will take me less than a minute to prove it.”

Nobody said anything.

“Oh, come on,” I pushed them, “you really aren’t sure what your jobs are?” I pulled out a roll of bills, with the $100 bill clearly showing on top. “Take the bet. If you win, I’ll give you the hundred bucks. If you lose, I’ll contribute the money to the charity of your choice. Raise your hand unless you really don’t know what your job is.”

A few people raised their hands, but most of them glowered, suspecting a setup. “Let me make it easier,” I said. “Let’s not bet money but time and energy. If I win, you stay in the workshop and participate fully. If I lose with more than half of you, we close this workshop and I’ll take the fall with your managers. I’ll tell them I just couldn’t do it. They’ll never know better; what happens here stays here. And to clinch the deal, you decide whether I win or lose.”

People grimaced. Some shook their heads, determined not to play with me.

“Come on,” I pleaded. “You’re stuck with me. What have you got to lose, besides your confusion? If you win, you’ll get rid of me right now. You can tell everyone the story of the idiot who messed up his workshop in the first five minutes.”

Finally, I had their attention. Most of them raised their hands. I chose a woman sitting in the front. I peered at the name on her badge and thanked her. “Thank you for playing, Karen. What’s your job?”

“I’m an internal auditor.”

“And what’s your job as an internal auditor?”

“To assure that the organizational processes are reliable.”

“Okay, Karen, let’s begin. Everyone, please look at the clock. Karen, did you play any sports in school?”

“Yes,” she replied. “I played soccer.”

“Great! As an Argentinean, I’m wild about soccer. What position did you play?”

“I played defense.”

“What was your job?”

“To stop the other team from scoring,” she said.

I turned to the rest of the managers. “The job of a defensive player is to stop the other team from scoring. Does anyone disagree? If so, please raise your hand.”

Nobody moved.

“So now, somebody else answer me, please. What’s the job of an offensive player?”

“To score goals,” several people said in unison.

“Great, it seems we’re all on the same page. My next question is, what’s the job of the team?”

“To cooperate,” someone said.

“To cooperate in order to do what?”

“To play well,” someone else said.

“And why would the team want to play well?”

“To win!” came a shout from the back of the room.

“Bingo!” I replied. “The job of the team is to win the game. Anybody disagree with that?”

The Meaning Revolution

How many of you realize that your primary job is to help your organization fulfill its mission ethically and profitably?

They shook their heads and rolled their eyes, annoyed at this exercise in futility. I saw someone faking a yawn. His thought bubble read, What’s the big frigging deal?

“If the job of the team is to win,” I continued, undeterred, “what is the primary job of each and every member of the team?”

“To help the team to win,” someone else said.

“Right again! Do you all agree?”

Everyone nodded.

“Here’s my last question: If the primary job of each and every member of the team is to help the team to win, and if the defensive player is a member of the team, what is the primary job of a defensive player?”

“To help the team win,” a third person muttered, clearly intuiting where things were going.

“Yes!” I pointed to the person who said it. “Please say that louder.”

“To help the team win,” he repeated.

“Okay. Please check the time. It’s been fifty-two seconds since we started this discussion.”

People still looked puzzled, so I explained. “What is the primary job of a defensive player? Is it to stop the other team from scoring or to help the team win? You all agreed with Karen a minute ago that it was to stop the other team from scoring. I hope you’ll agree with me now that it’s to help the team win.”

“What’s the difference?” asked one contrarian.

“Imagine you are the coach of a team that’s losing one to zero with five minutes to go. What would you tell the defensive players?”

“To go on the offensive and try to tie the game,” someone asserted.

“Exactly! So how would you react if they told you, ‘Sorry, Coach, but that’s not our job’?”

“I’d fire their asses.”

“Why? Doesn’t that make it more likely that the other team could score a second goal in a counterattack? If the defensive player’s job is to help the team to win, then going on the offensive is the right thing to do. If his job is to minimize the goals scored against his team, it is the wrong thing to do.”

People were smiling. I could feel the tide turning. I pushed further. “So what’s the job of the offensive player?”

“To help the team win.”

“And what’s the job of the water boy?”

“To help the team win.”

Several people were giggling, but not everyone. “I still don’t get the point about our jobs,” someone said.

“In 1961, President John F. Kennedy was visiting NASA headquarters for the first time,” I replied. “While touring the facility, he introduced himself to a fellow who was mopping the floor, and he asked him what he did at NASA. The janitor replied proudly, ‘I’m helping put a man on the moon!’”

I let that sink in for a moment. And then I asked them, “How many of you told your partner in the opening exercise: ‘My job is to help my company win?’ How many of you realize that your primary job is to help your organization fulfill its mission ethically and profitably? How many of you heard your partner describe his or her job as ‘contributing to increase the value (and the values) of my company’?”

In the now-not-so-icy silence, you could hear the proverbial penny drop.

  • The Meaning Revolution

  • 'One of the most extraordinary thinkers on leadership and management I have ever encountered' - Sheryl Sandberg

    Forget the standard practices of leadership taught in business school -- all about compensation, command and control. This is a new model for how to inspire -- through purpose, principle and people. The Meaning Revolution is Fred Kofman's call to arms for anyone who has ever felt unengaged at work and offers actionable advice for how we can all find more meaning and dignity whatever we do.

    Bringing together economics and conflict resolution, counselling and mindfulness, Kofman explains how our most deep-seated anxiety is that we are wasting our lives. The things that we think matter -- salaries and job titles -- actually only account for 15% of our motivation at work. The other 85% is about how we belong, feeling we make a difference, that we serve a purpose larger than ourselves. Transformative leadership is about helping employees feel connected to a great mission or purpose, and discovering the 'immortality project' at the core of your business.

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