What isn't addressed as often though is the importance and necessity of injecting meaning into the work that people do. In their book The Progress Principle, authors Teresa Amable and Steven Kramer share that of all the actions you can take or implement to engage your workers, the single most important and effective is to give them more meaningful work.
But, I hear you say, there is a limit of meaningful work to be done within the company, much of the work is relatively repetitive and boring, though necessary. The key point to remember is that ALL work, at ALL levels, is important to helping the organization achieve its desired level of success - making it all meaningful. Your job is help make those connections for your people.
Viktor Frankl, Neurologist, Psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, in his definitive book Man's Search for Meaning, wrote about how it was those individuals in the camp who held onto a sense of meaning and purpose for their lives that experienced the greatest survival rate within the concentration camps.
Those who have a 'why' to live, can bear with almost any 'how'. Viktor FranklHaving an understanding of our 'why', giving our work meaning and purpose, is the biggest motivator of all. No matter what work your people do, their job exists for a reason. When you help them to understand that reason the work is more fulfilling. They feel more satisfied and their productivity levels increase.
In one study this concept was explored more fully. The researchers took a look at the fund-raising efforts of a University, in contacting their alumni. The callers were divided into three groups. The first group made their calls and went on their normal breaks. The second group made their calls but on breaks they were given stories to read from previous callers, describing how rewarding they found the experience of helping raise funds for scholarship programs to have been. The third group made their calls but on breaks they read stories from previous scholarship winners talking about how the scholarships changed their lives.
Most of you, I'm sure, expect that the second group was more successful than the first group in obtaining donations, and that the third group was even better. All true. However, what was astounding was 'how much' better the third group proved. Reading about how much the funds raised impacted the lives of recipients, reading about all the 'good' they did with that investment, increased the success rate of callers by 250%! Helping callers understand the true meaning and purpose of their calls drove the success by 250%. This was huge and has equally large implications for you and your organization. Imagine the impact on productivity if your people believed their day to day actions to have meaning and purpose.
However, simply helping your people to discover the meaning and value of their work is not enough, not if you engage in behaviours that negate or diminish their sense of value and worth. You need to continue to demonstrate to people that their work has value if they are to cling to their sense of purpose. Below are 6 of the biggest mistakes you may be making, in killing the sense of meaning and purpose in your employee's.
1. Dismissing the importance or relevance of employee's work and input.
Think of your behaviour in meetings. Do you ever catch yourself rolling your eyes or sighing in exasperation? These behaviours can leave employees feeling that their contributions do not have value. When an employee hands you a report or assignment, do you toss it to the pile on the side of your desk without glancing at it? Studies show that even taking the time to simply glance at it and respond with a 'thanks' or even a head nod, is sufficient to maintain their feelings of value and meaning.
2. Switching people off of teams before projects are completed.
Closure matters. Moving people off of a project before it is concluded can undermine their sense of truly being part of something that made a difference. The 'finishing' stage is an important part of bringing value. There may be times that you can't help moving someone onto something else but express your gratitude for all of their inputs on the existing project and ensure you give them work that they get to see through to completion before moving them again.
3. Constantly shifting goals and focus.
This is similar to the point above in that constantly changing the goals and targets of the organization leaves employees feeling disconnected to the outcomes. It is tantamount to a form of Corporate ADD. How can employees feel that the work they are doing has any meaning if tomorrow the focus shifts and discounts everything they were engaged in to that point?
4. Taking credit for your employee's ideas.
This one should be obvious. If you take credit for the hard work of someone else they are not going to feel inclined to continue to work that hard. When you steal their ideas and input you steal their 'why'.
5. Assuming a policing role.
When your leadership style's emphasis is on making sure your people aren't doing anything wrong you highlight your lack of belief in their capability of doing anything right. This leads them to minimize risk-taking, make fewer decisions or to try to implement anything new. It is far more difficult to find anything meaningful in this work environment because it is now focused on maintaining and not on growth.
6. Failing to link employee's contributions to corporate success.
Your people need to clearly recognise the connection between the work that they do and the corporation's vision/mission. It doesn't matter if they are a big cog or a little one, the wheels don't turn if a cog of any size is not in place.
Recognising any of the above behaviours as your own is the first step. Eliminating them is the next! There is no change without awareness. Corporations may be good at coming up with the vision of the company, or even in identifying what Jim Collins (of Built to Last fame) referred to as Big, Hairy, Audacious Goals (BHAG), but they tend to miss the mark on living to those goals in the day-to-day management of activities. Observe your behaviours in each moment and assume accountability for them. Many are simply habits that you can modify to project a more positive and deliberate message.
Ultimately, helping employees to find their meaning not only makes them feel more engaged, but you might just find that your work feels more meaningful as a result.