What motivates us to work? Making money, making a difference, making friends? Being productive, being creative, being busy? For some, the mission of the profession or organization that employs them is not important. For others, the organizational mission is what draws them to the work. It is to those folks that I write today.
If you are drawn to work that is mission-focused, be it in ministry, public service, non-profits, health care, education, philanthropy, diplomacy, or any other organization focused on helping people, animals, the planet, society or the greater good, beware. The alignment of your personal values with those of your work are fraught with many risks to your well-being, which is ironic because your work is often focused on the well-being of others.
The first risk of being mission-driven is becoming a workaholic. Mission-focused work tends to be underfunded and understaffed. Because you care so much about the work, you will be tempted to set aside your own needs, and often those of your families, to fill in gaps that you know you can fill, even if that means working late nights and weekends, and on vacations (if you take them at all). This is not sustainable. The stress of working too much will eventually make you sick. If you are lucky enough to have friends and family who nudge or implore you to work less, listen to them.
The second risk of being mission-driven is compensating for poor performance. When people are incapable or unwilling to do the work that needs to be done, colleagues are often expected to cover the deficiencies because it is more important to serve than expose and deal with performance issues. Add to this general conflict-avoidance which runs rampant in mission-driven work. However, lack of accountability allows people who should be gone to stay, putting even more stress on the people who are capable and invested. Over time, the lack of accountability is corrosive to the organization’s culture as people who compensate become resentful and exhausted, which ultimately hampers the ability to fulfill the mission.
If you are a leader, don’t expect others to compensate for poor performance. Deal with the issues even if it makes you uncomfortable. If you do the difficult parts of your job, the people who are struggling, those who are carrying them and the causes you serve will be better positioned to thrive.
The third risk of being mission-driven is tolerating bad management. This is not to say that all, or even most, mission-oriented work has bad management. On the contrary, most managers and supervisors are themselves as committed to the work as staff. However, when managers are incompetent, even abusive, it is often difficult to see because everyone is more focused on the ends than the means. Bad and abusive management will eventually destroy all that is good and undermine the very purpose of the work.
If you have supervisor or manager who lacks the skills to lead, don’t fall into the pattern of doing their work in addition to your own. It will make you resentful and enable the struggling manager to remain invisible. It is so hard, but stick to doing your job even if it means in the short term that things fall apart and the causes you serve suffer. In the long run, it is better for the mission for bad management to be visible to the people who can do something. If they see it and do nothing, or if you work for leaders who are abusive, get out of the situation as quickly as you can. If your personal risk is not too great, tell someone you trust in the organization what is going on, be it a colleague, another leader or human resources. Do it not only for yourself and your colleagues but also in service to the mission.
Workaholism, lack of accountability and tolerating bad management are all risks of mission-driven work but they are not certainties. They can be avoided and addressed but only if they are visible and faced head-on, which can feel counter-cultural in organizations and fields that place high value on values.
In healthy, balanced, accountable, well-managed work environments that serve the greater good, there are many rewards and joys in co-mingling work and mission. Just be sure to take care of yourself on the journey!