How to make sense of work
Sisyphus tells of a king in Greek mythology who offended the gods. His punishment was to roll a boulder down a steep slope in Hades, only to see him roll back down where he would start the process all over again. From employees I’ve interviewed over the years, it seems the ancient Greek version of Hell is a lot like everyday life for many of them: meaningless work with no end in sight.
Although leaders cannot alter their organization’s job duties, they can help realign employees’ perspectives on their job roles by giving work more meaning and purpose. The tasks remain the same; but their perceived significance increases. This way, we have a more engaged team and team members who feel connected to their work on a personal level.
Schon Beechler, now a professor at INSEAD, recount about an hourly job she had at the start of her working life. The job was in a plastics factory, where she worked on an injection mold. The foreman realized that this sharp employee had overpowered the machine and was starting to get bored and disengaged. He took personal responsibility for his employee’s commitment, and it changed Beechler’s outlook towards a potentially monotonous job.
She says: “One afternoon, he assigned me to a machine at the back of the factory which made the red plastic lenses inserted into the brake lights. He said in a calm voice, “You know, this job is really important. When you do a good job, the plastic in this lens reflects the light right behind it so drivers can see the red signal when they stop at the stop light. Doing the best quality work on this machine will help save lives. I think you have enough experience on other machines for me to trust you. ”
Beechler says her supervisor’s trust meant the world to her, and she promised she would do her best. His expression of individual task purpose helped transform boring work into meaningful work, “giving me energy, focus and a commitment to my work that was completely lacking when all I could see was another monotonous task,” she said.
Now, that could all be great if your mission is to save lives with your product, but what if your big company’s mission and values don’t align with what’s possible on your team? I once visited a customer service team at a large financial services company where employees identified the company’s outdated system for managing workflow as a problem. Despite a corporate value emphasizing “speed,” none of the team members could keep up with the demand. The team, however, got high marks for the quality of their work.
Employees told me how much they appreciated their team leader, who was able to ease the anxiety around speed expectations. She trained her workers to accept that the system was what it was, that other parts of the company were having the same problems. And she focused her team members on precision. She helped them set realistic timelines and motivated her staff to deliver specific results. At the end of each week, they celebrated quality successes.
She didn’t try to quell feelings of stress over the speed issue with positive thinking. This often only makes things worse. Instead, she restructured their work to emphasize a goal they could realistically control: the quality of the work they were doing. She was able to explain how each person made a valuable contribution, and her efforts made all the difference in her employee engagement and retention.
Think back to the best managers you’ve had. Chances are they not only helped you clearly understand your team’s purpose, but also where you could bring value as an individual to benefit your career. These types of managers help interconnect an employee’s goals and team goals. This interconnectedness is leadership; and when it does, it’s remarkable.
Gary, a young man I met at a training session, told me he had recently left an organization where he had worked for a decade. “I’m sure we had a codified mission and values, but in all my time there, I don’t remember a single word being said about them. Everything was passive. It was like not knowing your girlfriend is a vegetarian…or a Republican. You are bound to make mistakes.
He was happy to compare this experience with his current job. “My supervisor is fanatical about our mission and our values. It not only helps to manage the big decisions, but also the day-to-day details. Most important, however, is that he (his boss) leads by example and praises us when we do the same. Assignment that’s where you go and values get there. More leaders should start seeing “mission and values as verbs and not nouns,” he said.
If you want to encourage employees to engage with your team and your organization, if you want them to take more ownership and feel safe to take risks, then make work more meaningful. It’s the first step in developing a truly powerful workplace culture.