The Minimalist Manager

The Minimalist Manager

Can Minimalism Bring More Meaning
to Your Workplace?

By Rick Davis, BA’88

More than a mere handful of shirts hang in Creighton business professor Todd Darnold’s closet.

He lives in a typically sized suburban home with his wife, Stacy, and their two children. They own two cars. Todd collects baseball cards with his sons. And he subscribes to cable TV — binge-watching recorded Premier League soccer matches when he has the chance.

Yet, Todd Darnold, PhD, is a self-professed minimalist. (Read his blog here.)

Further, he believes minimalism’s principles can make us better managers, in the broad sense of the word — offering lessons to all those who provide oversight, from Little League coaches to parents to corporate CEOs.

The minimalist movement is not one-size-fits-all. The art of living with less offers a big canvas. Tiny houses, the 100 Thing Challenge, Project 333 (dressing with 33 items or less for three months) are on one side of the spectrum.

“For me, it’s not about having only seven shirts hanging in your closest,” Darnold says. “It’s more about being mindful and intentional about your purchases and behaviors than it is about having less stuff.

“When I got my first job, I bought some things like everybody does. And I realized that they don’t make you any happier. Once I bought them, the thrill was over almost immediately.”

He then stumbled across, created by Joshua Fields Millborn and Ryan Nicodemus — two young professionals who adopted minimalism after finding financial success and accumulated stuff were not leading to greater happiness.

“It resonated,” Darnold says.

He and his family began to embrace the lifestyle — customizing it to fit their situation. A radical purge of possessions, he says, was not the goal. Their focus has been on buying and keeping only those things that bring real value to their lives, and gradually ridding themselves of other “stuff.” It’s about being mindful — purposeful.

Motivating People

As an associate professor of marketing and management at Creighton, who also holds the recently established Charles “Mike” Harper Chair in Business Leadership, Darnold thought this concept might also relate to management. Could a minimalist approach help in motivating people?

“We are only really motivated in a long-term way when we are working for a purpose,” Darnold explains. “If we haven’t answered the ‘why’ question in a meaningful way, we are not going to be motivated. And we will quickly find that work is drudgery. We will become dissatisfied and unmotivated.

“The basis of leadership is really about helping your people find purpose in work, and then crafting the jobs and the culture of the workplace to keep people working on that purpose as much of the time as possible.”

Darnold believes minimalism’s “purpose-driven discernment” has benefits for both personal and professional management.

“We manage our lives, our children, our relationships. All of those things need to be purpose-driven. To me, that is at the core of what minimalism is all about.”

Teams of Human Beings

He encourages managers to write down their team’s purpose, and then gather together and discuss it. “That way, everybody is crystal clear about why they are there, and what value they bring,” he says.

It should happen at all levels. For example, the janitorial staff plays a critical role in ensuring that an organization has a safe, clean and attractive workplace. “That’s really meaningful work,” Darnold says. “We don’t often frame things for people very well. We don’t tell stories very well to help them find meaning.”

While “less” is often a word associated with minimalism, Darnold says that description is incomplete, especially for those who manage people. It’s really about communicating and facilitating a sense of purpose among individuals and teams, he says, which, for some managers, might mean spending more time with employees to get to know them better — to understand their passions.

Consider this example. A manager learns an employee is building a deck. To recognize that employee for a job well done, that manager gets the employee a gift card to a home improvement store. “That says, ‘I know you as a human being; we care about you; you’re a part of this,’ ” Darnold says. “It builds relationships. It builds trust.”

Darnold adds that organizations and managers need to understand that employees have purposeful pursuits beyond work, in their personal lives. He says that employees feel more engaged when they see that work is allowing them to do meaningful things at home. “It’s about creating a culture where it’s a team of human beings who have whole lives,” Darnold says.

Finding Our Purpose

Finding purpose at work is not just a job for management. All of us have a responsibility for discovering our passions and skills, and putting them to best use in all aspects of our lives — including at work.

Gallup polling found that in 2016 only 33 percent of U.S. workers considered them­selves engaged in their work, while 51 percent label themselves as “not engaged” and 16 percent as “actively disengaged.”

Engaged employees are those who are involved in, enthusiastic about and com­mitted to their work. Gallup’s research shows that employee engagement is strongly connected to business outcomes essential to an organization’s financial success.

“I think a lot of people just kind of get trapped,” Darnold says. “There’s that old song, ‘everybody’s working for the weekend.’ ”

Honest reflection is critical. What makes you happy? What are you good at? Then you can begin to find a career path that matches. It could mean starting your own business, joining a big company or going back to school.

Redefining Success

For those still restlessly searching for that ­perfect job — with a high-paying salary — it might require a redefinition of success.

“I think that is the broad theme under all of minimalism,” Darnold says. “Success is when we achieve purpose. It isn’t based on income level or an accumulation of things.”

For Darnold, a Christian, minimalism carries a spiritual component.

“Am I striving toward … achieving the purpose that I believe was God-given? I believe God put me on earth to do something. If I’m making progress toward that, I’m successful.”