This HBR Blog post poses a challenging and provocative question for those of us who seem to always be championing that workplaces should attract engaged employees and provide them an environment and culture that nurtures employee engagement. I’m one of those champions who sees a bedrock foundation of such a culture as having to include providing meaning for the people from their work – a purpose to get out of bed and zip in to work beyond the mere collecting of a paycheck. (Not ‘instead of’ but ‘as well as’, although there are many for whom it is ‘instead of’ and good on them but that is neither practical nor desirable for everyone.)
My scan of their post makes me think that they’re saying, “fageddaboutit.” Its too hard to find a fulfilling job. You have to make rent. Suck it up and suffer a crappy third of your day every day and whore yourself out for a buck. Even if you do luck your way into a fulfilling job, it won’t last. Get your jollies in your spare time. Be realistic.
They make many good and fair points. We do have to make rent. So do the people you lead. If everyone really was solely out to get fulfilled by their work above earning a wage, wouldn’t a lot more of us be working on water purification projects in Sub-Saharan Africa? But I can’t just let it slide. My view on getting meaning or fulfillment from your work (and the guts of what I try and advise my kids) is, Be realistic and aspirational.
Starting out, a lot of people flip a lot of burgers, push a lot of trolleys and pump a lot of gas. Substitute whatever jobs you personally perceive as being unfulfilling. I work with a lot of senior and highly qualified professionals who get an immense amount of achievement and satisfaction from their work on top of a kickass paycheque. But I work with a lot more front-line and first-time supervisors who don’t have that kickass paycheque and who don’t YET get an immense amount of achievement and satisfaction from their work – but they might.
I’m not extrapolating from the 100 or so employees I’ve worked with in the past year who stack vegetables that everyone can be fulfilled by such a routine and repetitious set of tasks. But some people can and do. I’ve met and worked with them. Most don’t. They punch a clock, make a buck and move on. Maybe their lettuce-stacking enables them to buy the turntable that launches their MC / DJ career? The moving on in the search for the possibility of eventual fulfillment is as much a driver of employee engagement as actually ever arriving at some magical and transitory arrival point called ‘fulfillment.’
This blog from TNS quite rightly suggests that the workplace environment is more than merely “the physical characteristics that make up a workplace.” It goes on to suggest that resource supply is a critical influencer of employee engagement. I agree but think they could have gone a lot further and deeper with their point.
Hopefully, most employers are keen to create a productive workplace and go about the relatively easy task of setting up the physical space in which work occurs. Many things are highly prescribed by law such as workplace safety or incentifized by potential downstream costs such as using ergonomic workstations to prevent the costs of lost-time injury due to occupational overuse syndrome or whatever it’s called these days. They’ll install heaters, fans, air conditioning, legionnaires disease filters, white strips on staircase steps, adjustable chairs and so forth. Those things are tangible, observable and relatively easy.
Employee Engagement Is Influenced By An Interdependent Workplace Eco System
I prefer to think of the workplace environment as a bit like an eco system and I have worked in a few swamplike places over the years. But, of course, I mean eco system in the sense of non-obvious interdependencies. The physical, cultural, social and many other words ending in “al” aspects of the workplace combine to produce whatever level of effectiveness and productivity you’re currently enjoying (or enduring.)
No doubt, you may have someone who has it in their job description to make sure the aircon works and the chairs are adjusted, perhaps even one or more people whose job is nothing but doing those things. But whose job is it to make sure the non-obvious and non-tangible environmental factors are at least acceptable and hopefully improving? The boss you say? Sure, why not?
Me, I say it’s part of everyone’s job. If workplace leaders are hiring inherently engaged and motivated people and desire to create a workplace culture that nurtures genuine engagement, then those employees should have zero qualms about speaking up or taking action themselves. The boss can too (and should.) The boss certainly bears the ultimate responsibility but it should be everyone’s job.
Then again, it should only ever rain at night.
The idea that our education ended once we left school was an accurate and helpful one – for factory owners in the industrial revolution. Since then, not so much. Many people quote the saying from Mark Twain, “I never let my schooling interfere with my education.” (I suspect that it’s more likely Twain said, “Schoolin’.”)
One of my kids heard a reference to an encyclopedia on a TV show the other day. She asked me, “What’s an encyclopedia?” Wow! My mum back in my childhood to any kind of “What’s a widget” kind of question would automatically respond, “Look it up.” Of course, today it’s inherently ironic that the looking up would almost certainly not occur using an encyclopedia. Things change, the rate of change is increasing and the ongoing need to learn will only increase. What we’re learning and how is going to change. We need for ourselves and our kids, and we need to cultivate in the people that we lead, the ability to learn faster, more effectively and more often.
Quite apart from the likely positive impact on the quantity and quality of our lives as reported in this Guardian article amongst many others, there is a positive correlation between ongoing development and increased success. The noted psychologist Carol Dweck wrote a fascinating book called ‘Mindset’ that’s also an entertaining read. Broadly, she proposes that there are two mindsets – the fixed mindset and the growth mindset. I paraphrase crudely but the difference seems to be mainly that the fixed mindset folks see that we’re all dealt some cards and our life will turn out depending on the cards we’re dealt. We’re smart or we’re not and our results will reflect that. The growth mindset folks think they can get new cards or more cards or play some other game that doesn’t involve cards. These mindsets are a choice and the beliefs the mindsets represent focus and filter our behaviours which dramatically impact our results.
To those with fixed mindsets, working hard is unnecessary as the talent they have is the talent they have.
Jerry West, is the former NBA Manager who drafted Kobe Bryant into the NBA for the Los Angeles Lakers who went on to lead L.A. to five championships. As a player himself, West won a championship. Have a look at the NBA’s logo which includes a player’s silhouette. That player was Jerry West. His business was selecting talent for a multi-billion dollar industry. What sort of player, what sort of person does he look for? He says, “I think you have to look beyond the resume sometimes. It’s easy to look at a kid in college who scores a lot of points and plays on a great team. But can he get better? Can he progress? Or is he not going to get any better?” Jerry West believes in the growth mindset.
Malcolm Gladwell wrote about the talent mindset in the corporate culture especially citing the Enron failure. Hire the best and brightest and get out of their way led to what happened there.
The number 1 skill I recruited for was the ability to learn, evidenced by ongoing personal development, not necessarily formal education. People toss around the old chestnut, “Hire for attitude, train for skill” for a reason. It makes sense. What are useful indicators of a desirable attitude including success-oriented traits such as perseverance and resilience? Ongoing personal development overcoming challenges along the way preferable in a team-based environment. If you don’t know what any of those words mean, look them up, in an encycl… on Wikipedia…
This article by Jonah Lehrer asks the question, “Are your co-workers killing you?” He goes on to cite a 20-year study into the effects of the workplace on longevity. There’s another longitudinal study that draws similar conclusions but goes on to the more important ‘why’. As I recently blogged with Langer and Rubin’s potplant experiment with old folks, the issue affecting health etc was one of perceived control.
You may or may not have ****heads as colleagues in your team but if they start affecting the degree to which you think you have influence over your work and your results, that’s when it starts getting unhealthy, nevermind less productive. (Bear in mind the old joke: Think of your four closest friends. Research shows that one in five people are a ****head. If you disagree… it’s you…)