Marcus Buckingham: Love + Work = Meh!

There are a lot of books on work being published at the moment! Marcus Buckingham’s new book, Love + Work, takes a different and interesting angle which is about how we can best love the work we do.

I’m really interested in love at work, which is one reason I asked to review the book. However, my focus (eg a section on Falling in Love with your Colleagues in ‘The Social Organization’) has been the opportunity for love (or deep emotional regard) between people in the workplace, not love of work itself, which I think is a rather unhealthy idea. So this may not have been the right book for me.

I’m also not generally a fan of Marcus Buckingham’s work beyond his psychometrics (especially his rather Orwellian attempt to promote debatable conclusions based on labelling other research as lies). So perhaps I should have known better than to request this book, as I did find it provoking, but I didn’t love it much.

Buckingham suggests that “when you see someone do something with excellence there is always love in it – loveless excellence is an oxymoron.” This means there can be no learning, performance, resilience, innovation, etc, etc, without love. Well, I’m not sure. Eg, for innovation you need necessity, constraint, interest, attention… Engagement even. But love?

This is Buckingham writing about the times when you and your lover are together. “Time meets you on the summit… and immediately throws itself off, dashing, rushing, rolling down the hill, picking up speed, the hours turning into minutes, the minutes into seconds, the seconds vanishing, and you look up at the clock and your time is up. Your whole day together speeds by in what seems like half an hour.”  – I’ll admit he can write!

I think time with colleagues can be similar, if probably more muted. But I think time doing activities you love is different. We talk about activities we love, but it’s not the same as love with / of individuals.

This is Buckingham again: “When you’re doing an activity you love, the same thing happens. You get so deeply connected to what you’re doing that the moments flow together, smooth, easy, inevitable. You don’t experience the activity as a sequence of defined steps, separated from you, outside of you, one taken and completed before the next is taken. Instead, the activity seems to meld with you, and you experience it from the inside out. As if it’s part of you.”

Activity time can be very compelling, but the state is different. As Buckingham goes on to explain, it’s the feeling that Csikszentmihali called flow. I agree we should aim to experience flow through our work. But that’s not the same as loving it.

Ultimately, it’s a personal choice. But if you’re going to love work, yes, you definitely should be aware that work doesn’t love you back.


Other than love, there are two particularly interesting ideas in the book:



Having left Gallup and sold Standout, Buckingham clearly needed a different, less psychometric based way of discussing strengths. The solution is wyrds. These are individual, distinct spirits, or clashes of chromosomes, that guide you to love some things and loathe others. “Having a Wyrd means simply that you will learn and grow the most when you’re in touch with this Wyrd and honour where it leads you.”

The source of a wyrd is the red threads you instinctively want to pull on to make your life feel easier and more natural. ”These red threads won’t tell you in which particular job you will be successful. Instead, they’ll reveal how you – one particular individual – will be most successful in whatever job you happen to choose.”

“You don’t need to love all you do. You just need to find the love in what you do.” This part of the book at least, is a bit like Whitney Johnson’s sweet spot (in ‘Smart Growth‘).

Buckingham provides a few exercises to help identify frequent patterns of behaviour to elicit your wyrd, which to me, provide the best parts of the book. However, I suspect people will still have to try a lot of different things out to discover this (a bit like Epstein’s suggestion in Range that we develop as generalists before choosing a specialist track). But you can never try everything. I might have been a wonderful trombone player, but I never tried.

So my best wyrd that I know about is about understanding complexity, in order to improve things. I’m not going to give you the full story behind this, but as one example, my intent as a child was to discover how to make it stop raining. In a way, that’s still what I’m trying to do today. My wyrd includes challenging other people’s suggestions and offering my own potential improvements, or at least, different perspectives. Which is why I like doing book reviews (although these tend to be challenges to ideas, rather than true reviews).

This fits quite closely to my top two roles in Buckingham’s Standout system which are Creator and Pioneer. And actually I’m quite pleased to see that you can get to the same sort of conclusion in a qualitative way, without the need for quantitative psychological analysis. (After all, I don’t like tinkering around with obscure data.)

My wyrd’s focus on insights may also be why I tend not to be that interested in everyday business or personal stories. I read fiction and watch films but I don’t do Eastenders, and I think too many stories are like that. I’m really not interested in stories of Buckingham, his wife, ex-wife, kids, dog, etc, which is another reason the book turned me off.

But a lot of people seem really interested in Buckingham, so if that’s the case, you’ll probably enjoy the stories too. That’s the thing about wyrds too, isn’t it. We’re all different and just because I didn’t like the book doesn’t mean that you won’t.

Of course, the fact that individuals are all different means that organisations can be too, which is a core tenet of my approach to strategic HR. I’d have liked to have read more on this and other opportunities of wyrds, and less stories, and rehashing of Buckingham’s previous suggestions (see my previous point on lies).

I did like Buckingham’s comments in a HBR webinar today that a Love+Work organisation would avoid leaving applicants hanging during recruitment. But again, that’s about a decent level of respect and some people-centricity. It doesn’t need love.

To finish with wyrds, and it is finishing with them, because having written all of this, after today, I’m not planning to think about them ever again (strengths and spikiness do the job just fine for me). So interesting, but not so very much!


Experience vs outcomes

This is the area of the book that I find most interesting, and challenging to my own perspectives. I’d value your comments to help me continue to think this through.

Buckingham claims that what people are doing, and whether these include the specific activities they love, is more important for happiness, wellbeing and contribution than why they’re doing the activities, ie the outcomes they provide.

This is very different from the focus on transforming competence, autonomy and relatedness in Whitney Johnson’s book, or Csikszentmihali’s flow. Flow is about an optimum experience, but it’s a dynamic not a static one, requiring a clear goal and the ability to gain immediate feedback.

It was also interesting to hear Buckingham talking about worklife balance in today’s webinar, and criticising this because everything in nature is moving, health is motion. So isn’t good / lovable work about progression too?

Take this from my Standout report:

“Each thing you make is a tangible sign that you have made some sense of the world,

that you have organized the chaos in some useful way.

You look at what you’ve made, you take pleasure in what you now understand,

and then you move on to the next creation.”


That’s it, that’s me. Motivating me doesn’t require providing me the time to understand and develop new insights, eg the “time alone to mull and muse” but just ensuring I’m working on things that provides some chaos which needs organising, or the opportunities to communicate this somehow. So projects that give me an opportunity to practice something are just as valuable as a keynote to talk about it or a provoking book to read about it.

I believe this need for achievement and progression on personally meaningful objectives (linked to strengths / wyrds) applies to many / most? other people too. Eg I’m currently listening to a Cambridge student punting on the Cam on Time Radio. I’m sure she enjoys days outside on the water, but I suggest her key motivators might potentially be the human stories she manages to collect that she can use in her stand-up routine, maybe the exercise that helps improve her fitness, or perhaps just something interesting to put on her CV. It’s understanding the outcomes, not just the activities, that provides the basis for helping her keep herself motivated.


So, I think that if we focus on love, then maybe experience is the key factor. But if we look at flow, it’s more about the activity required to achieve an outcome.

Of course, it’s difficult to challenge Buckingham on this because he’s got plenty of data and I’ve not. But data doesn’t always lead to sound conclusions. Eg, I strongly refute the suggestion that just because less than 16% of us our “fully engaged” (meaning responding in a particular way to 8 questions in an ADP survey) that “the rest of us are just selling our time and talent and getting compensated for our trouble”.

But work does need to be designed better, and linked to individual workers better too (and not just through the AI matching in Work Without Jobs).

But for me, good work is enough – we don’t have to love it. And that means we need to focus on helping people in achieving their goals, rather than, or as well as, providing them with experiences they love.


Jon Ingham

HR and OD Strategist, Trainer, Learning Facilitator at the Jon Ingham Strategic HR Academy


See the Academy’s Job Design course: Role and Job Design for Good Work and Higher Productivity – Jon Ingham Strategic HR Academy (New study group starts in early May)

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