Ikigai, a Japanese word that means “purpose” or “reason for being,” has been adopted in American society to mean having balance in work and in life.
On a recent trip to Barnes and Noble, I found five books on the “must read” shelf with ikigai in the title, and there are even more found online.
This concept may be new to many Americans, but it is not a new way of thinking. In Buddhism, ikigai is referred to as “Right Livelihood,” the intersection between belief, passion, purpose, and paying your bills.
If ikigai is something that is so sought after in American culture, then why are so many people unhappy in their work? Forbes reported earlier this year that 53 percent of Americans are unhappy in their current jobs and nearly 70 percent of all employees say they are disengaged at work. That doesn’t sound at all like ikigai. So, it got me thinking, what does it look like when Right Livelihood goes wrong?
I took Japanese in college (basically because my father told me to take Chinese and I was about as defiant as they come), so I reached out to a friend of mine who lives in Tokyo to find out what the word might be that is the opposite of ikigai. Guess what? There isn’t one. As I described how Americans are unhappy in their work and many of them feel like their work isn’t of purpose, she said she understood, but there really wasn’t a Japanese word that fit.
I have so many friends that I talk with who are unhappy and unfulfilled in their work. They actually describe their workplace as “dysfunctional.” Their stories range from a lack of communication to leaders making staffing decisions based on rumor. That is Right Livelihood gone very wrong.
Have you ever worked in an organization that can best be described as “dysfunctional”? There is a huge body of research that outlines the qualities of effective, high performing, or functional organizations, but what are the characteristics of a dysfunctional organization?
1. Lack of trust.
Functional organizations are transparent and based on mutual trust. The goals of the organization are clear and the work is aligned. Feedback is real, meaningful, and designed to help people grow. Team members speak up with respect and their feedback is heard. Dysfunctional organizations have secret meetings, meetings after the meeting, lack confidentiality, and have leaders who react personally to professional issues. The lack of trust exists at every level of the organization and can be represented by phrases like, “Trust no one,” “She posted this last night on Facebook,” “I saw on his Instagram feed,” or, “Don’t tell the boss.”
2. Favor-based or friendship-based promotion.
In a functional organization, promotion is based on a track record of getting results. There is a focus on clear goals and expectations, and promotions support the work of the organization in achieving those results. In a dysfunctional organization, promotions seem random. Dysfunction promotes based on longevity, favoritism, nepotism, racism, or other reasons that do not align with the overall goals of the organization. While leadership may try to communicate how the promotion aligns to the organizational goals, the people within the organization know that there is another agenda at play.
3. Rumor rules.
Trust is the foundation of any functional team. While there will always be rumor and gossip, in a functional organization, leaders cannot be influenced by rumor because the level of relational trust is high. A sign of a clearly dysfunctional organization would be leaders participating in rumor discussions and then making decisions based on those discussions.
4. Dissenters not allowed.
Have you ever heard the phrase “Iron sharpens iron”? There has to be room for disagreement, for discussion, for alternate ideas, and for consensus building within a functional organization. The most innovative organizations recruit diverse ways of thinking because it strengthens the dialogue and the level of creativity. In dysfunctional organizations, everyone knows to “smile and nod” and keep their real feelings to themselves because the organization is not built for authentic feedback.
5. Change for the sake of change.
The reactivity of an organization can often identify a major weak spot. Whether it is public complaints, survey results, social media comments, or press coverage, the reaction of the organization to the concern is often very telling. When a small number of voices speaks for the majority and major changes are implemented as a result, that is usually a dysfunction-based reaction. Problem-solving takes time, effort, and commitment, and organizations who make changes regularly without real problem-solving are often just “shuffling chairs on the Titanic” in order to make it appear as if they have addressed the problem.
The goal of Right Livelihood is to live your beliefs, be of benefit, and pay your bills. So many people get stuck in a mind-set thinking they cannot impact their workplace environment, and they become bitter or resentful. Sometimes, the only thing we can change is ourselves, but it is the most important change that we can make.
If you, or someone you care about, are searching for Right Livelihood and find yourself stuck in a workplace gone wrong, consider working with a life coach or leadership coach to help you navigate the space between where you are and where you want to be.
Don’t put off being happy and fulfilled for even one more minute. You are worth it.