When work can be something we love to do

By Elisabeth Goodman, 15th May 2022

These last two to three years, during which I undertook my formal coaching qualification, and ramped up the amount of work I have been doing in this area, have been amongst the most enjoyable of my professional life. I learnt, in a recent article by Marcus Buckingham1, that this may be because, when I’m operating in coach mode, I release more anandamide, a natural endocannabinoid! According to Buckingham, this naturally occurring endocannabinoid (also found in chocolate2) “brings you feelings of joy and wonder”.

Photo by Sara Cervera on Unsplash

Buckingham’s article in the latest issue of Harvard Business Review, which also suggests that doing work we love might trigger oxytocin, dopamine, norepinephrine and vasopressin, is a great reminder of the importance of seeking out work that we love, and also supporting and encouraging those we are responsible for to do the same.

Pursuing work that we love might require a tough decision on our part

According to Buckingham again, the number of people choosing to leave their jobs is at an all time high. His statistic of 25% is specific to the US, but we’ve been hearing of the ‘great resignation’ elsewhere too.

His article really resonates with my fundamental belief that people should be able to choose what work they do, and the role of managers to support them in that. It’s a question I ask when working with individuals who are feeling overwhelmed at work:

“What is the unique ‘thing’ that you bring to your work, your main reason for being there?

And what are three aspects of your work that support that? That are also important to you?

And how does what you want to be doing in this space compare with what you are actually doing?

And if there is a difference, are you able to address that either through your own efforts, or through discussion with your manager?

And if not, what would you like to do about that?”

I recognise that there may be all sorts of reasons why we can’t always adjust the nature of our work. However, if we are better able to focus on what matters to us, then the chances are we will find a way to reduce the sense of overwhelm.

Buckingham suggests that doing work that we love need only account for 20% of the time we are working, and in fact more than that doesn’t really seem to make a difference. That 20% though can increase resilience and reduce the risk of burn-out. It will also increase productivity.

When we do work we love, we are more likely to be fully engaged in it and at our most creative, and most productive.

Managers have a big role to play in all of this

I’m a big advocate of managers having regular one-to-ones with their direct reports. Not just to see how they are getting on with tasks, but to gauge how they are getting on in general, and what additional support might be helpful.

Buckingham suggests that managers ask the following questions to help focus in on and shape work that people love:

  • What did you love (about the previous period of work)?
  • What did you loathe?
  • What are your priorities (in the coming period of work)
  • How can I best help?

These are great way to tune into what is motivating the individual, as well as if and how work could be adjusted to better align with that. It shows people that their managers care. And of course it still provides information on how tasks are being attended to and completed.

It doesn’t mean that all work that an individual ‘loathes’ will automatically be eliminated, but things might move in that direction.

Can we or should we do away with some traditional processes and tools?

If I’ve interpreted Buckingham correctly, he suggests that we do away with cascades of objectives, 360 feedback, competency frameworks and performance ratings, on the basis that they stifle people’s individuality, creativity and undermines their sense of being trusted to design and carry out their work to the benefit of the organisation.

I’m not convinced, but there’s certainly an argument for shifting the emphasis. Looking at each one in turn:

Cascades of objectives

These are top down from the company’s short-term objectives, through to those for the team and hence the individual’s. In our work with managers at RiverRhee, we advocate this be a two-way process. The individual does express their career and development goals, and explores with their manager how these can align with organisational and team goals. Buckingham is advocating putting a greater emphasis on letting the individual design their own goals.

360 degree feedback

Buckingham suggests that using processes such as 360 degree feedback suggests that we don’t trust individuals in the organisation; that they have to heed feedback from others to ensure that they are shaping up to what is expected. Again, I wonder if it’s a question of emphasis. If an individual seeks and receives feedback in the spirit of affirming their strengths, and identifying potential opportunities for their learning and development – might that still be a good thing?

Competency frameworks

When I talk to managers and individual team members about competency frameworks they like the idea of having something that helps identify the skills and knowledge that will help them to progress in their career: something that gives transparency around expectations and routes for promotion.

Buckingham argues the case for treating each person and the contributions they can make at work as being unique: that they shape their work and the work they want to do shapes them. His stance reminds me of Gary Hamel and Michele Zanini’s various writings about how to increase individual ownership of their roles in organisations.

It takes a more deliberate leadership / management commitment to make these alternative approaches work, and many of the organisations that I work with don’t seem to have the time to give this sufficient attention. Competency frameworks still seem to be better than nothing in these situations.

Performance ratings

I’m with Buckingham about performance ratings. Issuing them during performance reviews definitely seems counter-productive to having an open conversation about what individuals are enjoying about their work and their plans going forward.

Where leadership teams attempt to create a ‘normal’ distribution of ratings this seems to contradict any idea of recognising individual performance. And the whole process of giving ratings seems very subjective too. That does still leave the question though of how organisations determine bonuses and pay rises?

Comments welcome!

In conclusion

Buckingham’s article feels like a good ‘call to arms’ to remind individuals, and managers to be more proactive in creating opportunities and practices for people to do more of the work that they love. It feels like a revival too of Michael Bungay Stanier’s “Do more great work”.

The Covid pandemic has re-set a few expectations about working conditions, first about hybrid working practices, and now about the nature of work itself.

It will be interesting to see how things develop. I’ll certainly be continuing the conversation with those that I work with in my one-to-one, group and team coaching. And I’ll be enjoying the biochemical effects of doing the work that I enjoy!

What might you choose to do the same or differently in your work?


  1. Buckingham, M. (2022) Designing work that people love. Harvard Business Review, May-June, pp.68-75
  2. Anandamide (n.d.) Wikipedia. Retrieved from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anandamide

Leave a Comment