The Key to Engagement: Figuring Out Why We Work – and Why It Matters

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Humans work for more reasons than money — and money is not even at the top of the list.

What is at or near the top of the list for people is to feel like their work matters, that it counts for something. The companies who create meaning for the work keep their employees engaged and productive through the business downturns.

Companies that do not go the extra mile to create meaning have a workforce doing as little as possible. I see this often. It is a shame for everyone involved, including the shareholders.

I was preparing to write this about how to make work more meaningful for people, when I heard a piece of an interview with Dr. Dan Ariely about his new book, The Upside of Irrationality. I didn’t hear the whole interview, but he talked about a test he did to measure how important meaning was in one’s work. The test was to complete a task repeatedly, until you wanted to stop.

The task was to build a Lego robot. When you completed it, you got asked if you would like to build another robot.

In one case the robot you built was placed to the side so you could admire it while you built the next one.

In the other case if you said you’d like to build another, they disassembled the one you just built right in front of you, gave you back the pieces and said, ‘OK, build another one.‘ “

How to drain all meaning out of someone’s work

I’m sure I am doing a disservice to Dan Ariely’s work by taking this out of context, but that is one of the best metaphors I have heard for taking the meaning out of someone’s work!

It got me to thinking, what are all the ways we drain meaning from our employees work, disassemble their robots right before their eyes, mabye even without recognizing we are doing it? And how can we build up the meaning instead?

  1. Changing your mind all the time. Someone completes something you said was really important, but you changed your mind since you first assigned the task. Now instead of accepting the work and thanking them, you gloss over it and ask them to do something else instead. Then later you change your mind again, maybe even back to the first thing.

Robot parts are flying at this point!

Let people finish things. Don’t keep switching the task before people can complete things. Consider the full cost of changing your mind.

If you really have to change your mind, don’t skip the closure. Thank people for the work, and communicate a reason why THEIR work still counts, even though YOU have changed your mind.

2. Not accepting something different than you do it.

Be careful here, just because it isn’t like you would do it doesn’t mean that it’s not good enough, or maybe even better.

Build the robot again, but this time use the blue Legos for the feet and the red ones for the arms because that is how I do it.

You are far more likely to create meaning if you accept good work than if you tweak it to death just to make it exactly like you would do it.

3. Skipping the closure.

The urgent customer issue or demand has disappeared because you either won the deal or lost the deal. The team has been working frantically to produce or defend something.

When you no longer feel the urgency, you either forget to call off the team so they keep working round the clock — oops! Or, you just never go back to collect the work because it no longer matters to you. Just because it no longer has meaning for you and you have moved on to other things doesn’t mean you should take the meaning away from the people that did the work.

Save the robot as a resource.

If the work is no longer necessary, close out the project, thank them, and have a quick brainstorming about how we can use this important work for another customer or to solve a general issue. It’s so much easier to just move on to your next urgent thing, but you are sacrificing your team’s motivation an ongoing performance and support if you skip this step.

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4. Not being clear about the strategy.

This is probably the biggest and most common hazard I have seen. Companies are fuzzy about what their strategy is, but they demand lots of hard work from people, and it is utterly impossible to understand if the work matters to the strategy or not.

Unclear strategy causes lots of wasted time and energy working on the wrong things, or waiting for decisions to be made, but it is really de-motivating for people to deliver work into a strategic black hole.

That is like throwing their robots directly into the trash can.

Make the strategy clear. It’s what creates meaning for the work.

5. Not connecting the dots for people

Even if the strategy is clear to you, don’t expect your staff to automatically see how their work fits into supporting the big picture.

You need to spell it out and show them why their work matters. If you never connect the dots about how their work specifically supports the overall strategy, there is no meaning in it for them.

Otherwise, they are just putting their robots on a conveyor belt to be used for unknown purposes.

Ensuring that all your employees understand how the business works, and how their work helps move it forward, motivates and enables them make better decisions and add more value.

With or without financial rewards, your employees will do better work, faster — if they can personally see why it matters.

This article was originally published on Patty Azzarello’s The Desired Outcome blog.

Patty Azzarello is the founder and CEO of Azzarello Group. She's also an executive, best-selling author, speaker and CEO/business advisor. She became the youngest general manager at HP at the age of 33, ran a billion dollar software business at 35, and became a CEO for the first time at 38 (all without turning into a self-centered, miserable jerk). You can find her at patty@azzarellogroup.com .

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2 Comments on “The Key to Engagement: Figuring Out Why We Work – and Why It Matters

  1. I love the analogy of disassembling the robot, because I have seen that done in a company that is still recovering from it. The IT team had completely rebuilt the system for their e-commerce company, and despite immense challenges, had delivered on time. Though they were proud and relieved, the CEO focused only on the challenges and the launch date was not recognized, though it fundamentally improved the way the company worked. The team is still wounded and a gap has formed between the IT org and the rest of the company. Just another cautionary tale of not adhering to your suggestions here.

  2. How about including a “why this job matters” section in every job description? It might help cut to the chase about what the job is, and why it’s needed (or not). I work in staffing, and many managers forget that even a temporary employee likes to feel his/her work matters. The tricky part is to do the things you suggest consistently, and across the organization. It takes training and patience to help managers see the wisdom in this – instead of taking the easy way out by throwing money at the problem (or blaming money when the person leaves). I think recruiting is a good example of the truth in what you point out; some of the best recruiters I know feel they are helping people find jobs, and helping customers fill their open positions. If they are doing it just for the money, they usually burn out pretty quickly.

    Matt Rivera, http://blog.yoh.com

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