It’s one of the five W’s that every journalist considers when reporting a story. Often, it’s the most crucial question.
But in business, the question often seems to be neglected — considered far less important than the What (are we selling?) and the How (do we make money?).
According to Andreas Widmer, that neglect is a major factor contributing to a current trend of malaise in the workplace.
Widmer is a Swiss Guard-turned-entrepreneur who founded and directs the Arthur and Carlyse Ciocca Center for Principled Entrepreneurship at The Catholic University of America. He just published his second book, The Art of Principled Entrepreneurship, in which he details five key principles for conducting business in ways that combine personal virtue, the latest entrepreneurial tools, and long-term perspective in order to make business a win-win proposition for everyone.
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, when millions of people began working from home in order to limit the spread of the coronavirus, there’s been a lot of talk about workers feeling disengaged from their jobs. Businesses reportedly have suffered from a “Great Resignation,” with workers deciding to find fulfillment in other jobs or in other pursuits. And apparently, an overwhelming number of people remaining in their jobs have been engaging in “quiet quitting,” doing only the bare minimum to get by, eschewing any feelings to go “above and beyond” for their employers.
Gallup recently reported that last year, only 34% of employees felt engaged at work, while 16% said they were actively disengaged.
Widmer doesn’t think this is because people are lazy or don’t want to work, but that there’s something deeper. “I think this is a reaction of people to how they’ve been treated at work,” he said in a recent interview, “and how they’re being treated at work is not even solely the responsibility or the fault of the management class, but it’s a cultural issue, because our culture has stopped giving a why for work.”
Missing the point
He said that two major societal attitudes toward work and business – on the one hand that it’s all about profit for a few at the top, and on the other hand that businesses ought to “give back” for their “nefarious” profit-making by practicing corporate social responsibility – miss the point that workers, managers, owners, and investors all need to know the reason for their engagement.
“What we need to go back to – or forward to – is a proper understanding that work itself is a moral good, that when I do business and say ‘How may I help you?’ then I use my God-given talents and I add value for you,” said Widmer. “If I do that, and you’re willing in a free market to pay me more than it cost me to make something, that difference is newly-created value. We can call that profitability.”
For Widmer, it’s important also to bear in mind that the key elements in entrepreneurship are human effort and human ingenuity. As a Christian, he considers those elements – which can be summed up as creativity – an important link to his own reason for being.
“I’m made in the image and likeness of the creator,” he said, referring to the Creation account in the Book of Genesis. “When I’m creative at work, I’m actually imitating God. I’m actually not just imitating God, I’m participating in God’s creativity. And because of that, when you do something like work – even cleaning a room is creative work. Then you do something that in itself as a process is a moral good.”
Character is king
Some commentators have advised business owners to look for talented employees as a way to push back against quiet quitting.
“To enhance engagement, hire talented, passionate, and ambitious people who are competent in solving the tasks for which they have been hired and take ownership in their roles,” a recruiter named Jack Kelly wrote at Forbes.com. “Once hired, leadership should trust them and offer the freedom to execute their work in whatever way is most efficient and effective.”
Widmer sees it differently. More important than talent, he says, is character.
“Character is somebody’s habits, somebody’s virtues, their why – Why am I doing this? – their objectives,” he said. “We could go through the cardinal virtues and say how mature is a person, how reliable, how honest, how sincere, and so on.”
Character is “something that’s very difficult to teach,” he said, “but it is relatively straightforward to create a hiring process to screen for that, to make sure you’re getting people of a certain character.”
Skills and knowledge are secondary, he said, because they are teachable.
“You have to have values that are far above profit by light years to create enduring value in the marketplace,” Widmer said. “One of the side effects of a company like that is profitability. But there are a lot of other side outputs of this which are equally important: human flourishing, happiness, common good, and goods that are truly good and services which truly serve.”