Joy at Work: An Interview with Dennis Bakke

Blog / Produced by The High Calling
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“Managers control people and things.
Leaders give up control and serve people.
There’s a huge difference—
and that’s the essence of creating joy at work.”
--Dennis Bakke

Dennis Bakke, author of the recent book Joy at Work, is holding a city magazine with the inevitable “best of” cover story. This one ranks the top employers in town. To quickly prove why he felt compelled to write about joy in work, Mr. Bakke scans down the writers’ criteria for a desirable job: “401K, health club, wellness incentive . . . ,” he reads aloud, “and, my favorite—number of paid days off a year.”

Decades ago, Mr. Bakke cofounded AEG, an energy giant with 40,000 employees in 31 countries and revenues of $8.6 billion. He built and led AEG on the nontraditional notion that the actual work in a workday should be fun. He gives short shrift to business models that miss the point. “The assumption is that work is a horrible place only made better with parties, special health clubs, pay for travel,” he says. “Ludicrous!”

During his own grand experiment in turning decisions and risks back to the employees, Mr. Bakke saw people freed to exercise their God-given talents. And take joy in it. Arguably, the idea wasn’t new to Dennis Bakke. It was uncommon, however, and still is, to run a successful company not for profits but employee fulfillment.

Mr. Bakke, when you say “joy at work,” what are you talking about?

I’m talking about whatever Jesus was talking about when He gave the parable of the talents. The master, the boss, sends the people out to take risks, to work. This is all about work. And they’re taking risks using their talents, skills, money. It’s all about risk-taking. We know that because the guy who buries his talent hardly gets back to the master let alone gets a reward.

The servants sent out with talents come back and hear, “Well done good and faithful servants. You did a good job of risking and getting returns.” (By the way, work is expected to get returns. You use your skills to make something happen.) Then he says, “Enter into the master’s joy.”

So a master is to hand off risk and responsibility to his employees?

The key to that joy is that the master didn’t make the decisions. All of the risk wasn’t the boss controlling the action. It was the boss sending the people out to use their gifts, their judgment, and make something happen.

God also gives us the most important decision in life—to choose Him or not.

And control turns up the fun?

There are lots of ways to make a job more fun if you have more control. You gotta have control. If you’ve ever gone to business school, you know that people who have control of their work have more fun and are more productive.

Our first calling is to be faithful to the Lord. It’s antithetical that we should be treated like a machine and not use our abilities to think and reason. Managers control people and things. Leaders give up control and serve people. There’s a huge difference—and that’s the essence of creating joy at work.

Some people believe that joy in work died when sin entered the world.

Sin never cursed work. It only made it more difficult. And difficulty has nothing to do with fun. In sports, the more difficult, the more fun. The only thing that matters is having control.

People in my plants said they didn’t like work—it’s hard. But sports they like. What’s the most fun in basketball? When there’s tremendous pressure. The more pressure, the better. If I have the ball, if I have control, I have a chance to use my abilities to make a difference for the team.

It’s the same in the workplace. Jesus tried to illustrate that when the master (the boss) gives up the power and becomes a leader instead of a manager. The master encourages but doesn’t make the decisions. He doesn’t tell people what to buy or where to dig. He basically is an advisor and encourager that makes sure the people hold themselves accountable.

What do you say to the many Christians who were taught to believe that secular work is second-tier—less significant?

In my life, I’ve done four significant things: taught my kids to play youth football . . . spent 10 years as a deacon and head of missions commission and taught Sunday school . . . this year our foundation is giving $50 million . . . and I created a company that provided 100 million people with electricity needs. All are significant.

The purpose of the organization is to serve the world. That’s what God says. Making electricity is every bit as significant to God as teaching Sunday school and giving money away. Profit, capital, is only a way of paying for past work. I work one day, save it, invest it later. So the person who invests money deserves a return on it as much as someone working.

Stewardship, by the way, isn’t only about giving money away. That's usually a small percentage. God really cares about the other 90 percent of the stuff we keep, the real job we do, and serving the world with it. That’s what God cares about because that’s where we spend our time.

The “success to significance” idea inspires many Christians in mid-life to leave for-profit work to use their gifts on behalf of nonprofit. Why do you take exception to that idea?

Bob Buford is a good friend of mine, and he doesn’t believe this anymore. But other people ran with the idea that God thinks making money is not a useful thing. And that overlooks that business is not about making money. It’s about serving others. Money is a way to pay people and pay taxes. Secondly, that implies that making electricity is not as significant as working in the church. Nothing in the Bible says that’s true. It sounds neat, but it’s not about following your calling. If you follow your calling, you’re significant. If your calling is to be the head of a business, you’re significant. I don’t think Bob intended this, but some people started thinking that if they made a lot of money in business, they now had to do something significant.

That’s like telling Joseph, "You’re out here working for the king. You ought to quit and do something significant to help the church." That’s what the "success to significance" would say. It would take Joseph and say to him, "You’re in the wrong place working for the heathen king. You made a lot of money: quit that job and go to work for the church."

Bottom line, Christians are indeed called to secular service?

Most of the heroes of the Bible were called to secular vocations. Almost everyone was called like I was, called primarily to go into the world to serve the regular ordinary needs of ordinary people. Abraham developed real estate. Jacob was a rancher. Daniel was president of Iraq. Many heroes were military men. Joseph was a high government official in a nation that did not acknowledge the sovereignty of the Hebrew God.

Joseph wasn’t called to church work. God sent him to work for that secular heathen king. He gave Joseph a chance to save his family and hundreds of thousands of others. He kept them alive with food and got through the famines. It had nothing to do with evangelism or discipleship, but serving the needs of others in a profit-making organization.

Most of us are called to secular places to sell groceries, make electricity. We’re serving the poor or not so poor through those organizations. And that’s what the church doesn’t celebrate. I have never been in a church that commissions those people. No wonder there aren’t many CEOs who are believers.

We’re not called to sackcloth and ashes. We’re supposed to look out for the poor, but we’re not called to be poor. We’re not called to be rich either. It isn’t about poverty. It's about humility . . . understanding who you are in the sight of God.