You get what you work for, not what you wish for.

That truism is no longer just a motivational poster. It’s the mantra of virtually every industry on the planet.

Thanks to the pandemic reality check, people everywhere are reassessing virtually every issue associated with work.

The adoption of technology has been accelerated (hello Zoom, Skype, Dropbox, Google Drive and a host of other tools).

The structure and management of meetings have been re-evaluated. For many people, business travel is only a memory. And “office space” now has more to do with kitchen tables than the square footage in that silent downtown building.

All of these issues—and much more—are put into perspective by Jonas Altman, an expert in leadership and workplace practices. His book is Shapers: Reinvent the Way You Work and Change the Future.

Rodger Dean Duncan: In the context of the workplace, what are “shapers” and what role can (or should) they play?

Jonas Altman: A shaper is someone who sees work as a practice. Their job is not something they have, and work is not necessarily somewhere they go.  It’s all about the journey.

Shapers feel a deep connection to what they do, get energized by their work, find endless ways for creative expression, and plunge into something that’s larger than themselves.

The role they can play is to shape their work and life in such a fashion, that collectively, it helps to rewrite our future.

While shapers make their best contributions, they also inspire others to do the same. When more people operate like this, they transform our system of work for the better.

Anthropologist Margaret Mead was a shaper. So was futurist Alvin Toffler. Environmentalist Yvon Chouinard is a shaper, as is entrepreneur and author Marie Forleo.

Duncan: Most people appreciate having “meaning” in their work. But some of them seem to expect that meaning to be presented to them by someone else. What’s the flaw in that approach?

Altman: If you’re looking for meaning to come from someone else you’re in trouble. It’s self-propelled and stems from within.

Today the largest religious group in America is non-believers. In many ways work has replaced religion as the “place’ where we might discover meaning. But as the pandemic has revealed to many—meaning ensues from the deep life, connecting with others, creative outlets, and perhaps most of all, possessing a rich inner life.

Duncan: You say that meaning in one’s work can be beautifully random and randomly beautiful. What personal adjustments can people make so they can more clearly see (and produce) meaning in their work?

Jonas Altman

Altman: I think meaning emerges. So what you can do is take an inventory and discover, or rediscover, your superpowers. Experimenting and finding those things that you don’t want to do is equally as valuable as discovering the things that you do enjoy. And if you’re not there already, you do what you can to get into the right “ballpark.”

Take solace in the fact that meaning is not something you will get but something that may creep up on you when aren’t looking. The magic of meaning is that it persists through time. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.  And it’s not a destination to which we hope to arrive, but discursively comes from what we give our attention and energy to.

Duncan: Many studies show that—worldwide—we’re in the middle of an employee disengagement epidemic. What’s the cause of that? What’s the cure?

Altman: The cause is a system of work that was built in the image of a machine and not humankind. Our industrial-age beliefs were formed on a false understanding of human motivation. In modelling our workplace on the thesis that people are inherently lazy and spurred solely by dangling carrots, we turned a myth into a reality. We removed the soul from the organization and replaced it with ego. And this regretfully has shaped the nature of today’s workplace and has impoverished us instead of lifting us up.

What we need now is a new work ethic. One that values producing over posturing. Empowering over embittering. Asking over telling. Giving over taking. Risking over regretting. Leaning in over opting out.

Leaders can first understand that the biggest asset their business has is its people. They must look to create and sustain high trust cultures that provide workers with the requisite agency, connection to their work and colleagues, and regular growth opportunities. They need to be deliberately developmental—which means investing in people. Perhaps the biggest thing leaders can do today is to stop trying to change their organization or others within it, and start to change themselves.

Duncan: You rightly say that people aren’t resources to be managed. Instead, they should be inspired and challenged with a compelling purpose. Why haven’t more leaders received that memo?

Altman: Either they aren’t reading the memo or their business cultures are such that they’re just really slow to evolve.

Take advertising, for example. There’s a history of trying to retain talent and manage “creative resources.”  The problem with this strategy is evidenced in the sky-high turnover second only to the tourism industry. In tech land there is often more autonomy granted to workers. The software company Buffer, for example, has championed remote work for a decade, experimented with the shorter workweek, and let staff set their own salaries.

In the end it’s about the willingness for leaders to charter the unknown and let go of what was and welcome what can be.

Duncan: Nearly half of all U.S. workers are now millennials. And that percentage is expected to expand to 75% within five years from now. What are the implications of that for business leaders?

Altman: For starters, leaders must appreciate that these new workers are adamant in having their values align with that of the organization. It’s why they’re dubbed the “purpose generation.” 

Younger workers have a worldview defined by the digital era. Before spring 2020 it might have been a challenge for a younger worker to explain to leadership to use Google Drive, Zoom, Slack, or Trello for more efficient workflows. And then, pop! Overnight [because of the Covid-19 pandemic] these tools become how work gets down at companies of all sizes and across every industry. Leaders can listen and learn from this incoming workforce—they know what they’re doing.

This column was first published by Forbes, where Dr. Duncan is a regular columnist.

Rodger Dean Duncan