Holding Music

photo by Ryan McGuire

This is a true story.

December 2014, San Francisco California. I was in town for a conference and staying at an Airbnb

There was a problem with my payment going through, I had to phone Airbnb (the actual company)

I gave them a call. And was put on hold.

Their holding music was….Original Songs by their employees.

I listened. They played a song, the song ended, a brief message came on after along the lines of “this was a song by Ann, she is designer in London, if you like it you can listen to it here”

Airbnb was able to take a blank space, a space that is usually an annoyance, a space that usually has to be endured and turned it into an instrument of empowerment. Empowerment because it allowed employees to express themselves while making their customers wait times a little more pleasant.

They also hit upon a blindingly simple truth. People are not one dimensional. Your employees are not one dimensional

An accountant is not just an accountant. An accountant could be a mother-father-brother-sister-pianist-gardner-sci-fi nerd-photographer-singer-song writer etc etc etc

Everybody has strengths outsides their siloed professional qualification or job description

Yes, functional roles have to be filled, the jobs need to get done, but for people to feel engaged the job should provide an avenue for self-expression.

Why self-expression? Because self-expression could be a gateway to psychological safety and a way for people to bring their whole selves to work

When Google went on a quest to build the perfect team and published the results of their two-year study, the number one trait that they found that most successful teams share is psychological safety or “the shared belief that team is safe from interpersonal risk-taking” as Harvard professor Amy Edmondson says in her TEDx talk. As she says “no one wants to put on a ‘‘work face’’ when they get to the office. No one wants to leave part of their personality and inner life at home. But to be fully present at work is to feel ‘‘psychologically safe,’’

Airbnb provided psychological safety and an avenue for employees to incorporate their whole selves into their jobs


Companies like Airbnb are rare. An argument could be made that a business’s responsibility to its employees is just safe working conditions and a fair paycheck. Could it be possible to take a task-based job and turn it into something more meaningful?

Amy Wrzesniewski, a professor of business at NYU (now at Yale) and her colleagues made an important discovery. She was interested in people who loved their job..and why? To try and answer this, she studied 28 hospital cleaners and orderlies. This particular group was selected because these were the classic ‘non glamorous jobs’. Not surprisingly she found people who were unhappy about the job and the work they were assigned. However, there was a second group, a group that found the work meaningful. This second group, as she says in her paper were those that were able to craft their work to deploy their strengths. What these workers were doing, Wrzesniewski came to realize, was quietly creating the work that they wanted to do out of the work that they had been assigned.

Within the boundaries of their job, they were able to craft a calling.

Cleaners in the more proactive group saw the work and themselves as critical in healing patients, altering the meaning of the work and their own work identity. For example, an orderly while emptying bedpans of comatose patients would replace the art on the walls. Why? Because she saw herself as responsible for the overall wellbeing of the patients and in her case it was important for the patients to experience art when they awoke.

The purpose of this article is two-fold. Most of us are work. Those of us who are not self-employed work for an organisation. We spend the bulk of our lives working for organisations. Organisations that want the best out of their people, need to look at people as people with traits outside of their job description. To do that takes trust. It does not have to be that employees write their own songs. Four Seasons, for example, tell their employees to do what they think is right for customer satisfaction.

Satisfied needs aren't motivating. In a healthy-ish economy, why would a qualified individual choose one job over another? Why would that employee be loyal or pour their heart and soul into delivering a product? It would have to be for more than just money

As individuals, we have control. Control to wrest meaning out of a ‘meaningless’ job. Just like the second group of hospital cleaners, we need to ask ourselves if there is a higher purpose we can attach our tasks to. And also like the second group of hospital cleaners, is there a way to ‘re-craft’ what you do to deploy your signature strengths and passions




Founder of The Disruptive Business Network <https://www.disruptivebusinessnetwork.com/> Meaningful Work Disruptive Ideas, Learning and Community

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Rahul Soans

Rahul Soans

Founder of The Disruptive Business Network <https://www.disruptivebusinessnetwork.com/> Meaningful Work Disruptive Ideas, Learning and Community

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