Vocation is often defined as ‘a strong feeling’ to do something, a job, a career, an occupation, to dedicate one’s life to an idea, a trade, a craft. Typically it is applied to professions such as nurses or doctors, or a religious life. It is agreed, in general, that following your own vocation is fantastic, and not being able to do so, a human failure, perhaps even a personal tragedy.
‘Vocation’ has Latin and then French roots. It means ‘a calling’, a ’summons’. It has a tremendous religious connotation but today we are applying the concept widely.
Vocation is not the same as a profession. It’s not the same as a job. Vocations may ‘include’ a job (exercised to fulfill that vocation). But jobs don’t have to include a vocation. It is possible, indeed frequent, that people have a job that does not match their vocation or, even, it may be in contradiction. Like the son who has a vocation for the arts but is persuaded by his father to take over a family business which has nothing do with them. The son may not lose his vocation but he will probably live a very frustrated life if he cannot fulfill it.
I think that, in business, we don’t talk enough about vocations. It’s easier to ask somebody about his job, or jobs he or she likes to do, than asking ‘what’s your vocation?’ I’ve event met many people embarrassed to ask this, as if we, in business, don’t get into these nuances. A job is a job, a career a career and a title in the rank, a title in the rank. We don’t ask a successful CEO; ‘what’s your vocation?’ Well, not often.
But if we could (re) introduce the ‘vocation’ idea in our narratives, we would gain enormously. For example, I don’t know of any Employee Engagement system (assessment, survey) that asks plain and simple: ‘what’s your vocation?’ and ‘can you fulfill it in this job?’ (We may have many surprises!) We ask about job satisfaction, even happiness, but not vocation.
A working place where vocations can flourish, will be a place ahead of the game in any Employee Engagement framework. It may not be possible, of course, to cater for all vocations of our employees. But that does not mean that we ignore this extraordinary motivational force.
Our Employee Engagement frameworks are too mechanical. They speak the language of machinery, such as ‘going the extra mile’ or ‘discretionary efforts’. Both concepts, as well-intentioned as they may be, are horribly mechanistic; more energy, more efforts, more output. The ‘happy-place/happy-employee = better output’ is a sad view of human nature.
When you see vocations in actions, you invariably see something as well: happiness. I personally have never seen happier people than those who are in full blown exercising of their vocations. And I know some.
Just trying to rescue the concept a little bit more, may help us to understand better the whole motivational enigma. The one that is today dominated by a very poor input-output model.