We all want meaningful, engaging work. And guess what? Most of us aren’t finding it in today’s workforce.
Gallup tells us that only 30% of Americans are “engaged” in their work (defined as “the degree to which employees are involved in and enthusiastic about their work and workplace”).
That means a surprising 70% of America’s workforce is feeling pretty “meh” about their job, working solely for a paycheck. This is a problem for everyone — employees, companies, and our economy at large.
How did this happen? And how can managers and employers increase motivation, engagement, and positivity in the workplace?
How we got here — a quick history.
Mondays haven’t always been the most stress-inducing day of the week. In his new book, “Why We Work,” Barry Schwartz discusses how we got to this grim point. Unsurprisingly, it is (and isn’t) all about money:
“Carefully crafted incentive schemes, designed to ensure top performance, can often produce the opposite — competition among employees, and efforts to game the system and look good on whatever metric is being used to assign pay and bonuses without actually producing the underlying results that the metric is meant to assess.” 1
Paradoxically, with each effort to externally motivate our employees, we decrease their internal motivation, which is much more important to success.
What do people need to feel engaged?
If you want to motivate employees, allow intrinsic motivation to flourish. Spend time giving your employees what matters most: play, purpose, and potential.
As Neel Doshi and Lindsay McGregor note in their treatise on motivation, Primed to Perform, these three things — play, purpose, and potential — are what employees need to feel intrinsically motivated, and therefore, engaged.
My favorite documentary is Jiro Dreams of Sushi. Sushi chef Jiro Ono is revered as one of the best in the world, working deep in a Tokyo subway station. He’s not motivated by fame or fortune, but play, purpose and potential. Here’s a quick way to better understand these three key concepts:
PLAY is when is when the work itself is your reward. (We all know the best work is when it doesn’t really feel like work at all.)
For Chef Jiro, his work is play. There is beauty in his craft. He is meticulous and exacting but derives real fulfillment from the process itself. To him, it’s not work.
“Because the play motive is created by the work itself, play is the most direct and most powerful driver of high performance.” -Primed to Perform.
PURPOSE is when the result of the work is your reward. Jiro finds beauty in sharing his craft. When a customer tries his sushi, he gives a gentle nod of satisfaction. Jiro enjoys sharing the product of his work.
“You feel the purpose motive in the workplace when your values and beliefs align with the impact of the work.” -Primed to Perform
POTENTIAL is when an indirect result of your work aligns with your values or beliefs. Aside from honing his craft and pleasing customers every day, Chef Jiro’s work creates lasting non-monetary value and ongoing opportunity for himself and his family — especially his protege, his son.
“You do the work because it will eventually lead to something you believe is important, such as your personal goals.” -Primed to Perform
So what’s next? How can managers and employers bring these motivating elements back into the workplace?
1. USE “JOB CRAFTING” AS A WAY TO GIVE YOUR EMPLOYEES AUTONOMY — AND GET UNSTUCK.
Job crafting happens when an employee takes their existing job description and puts their own personal touch on it. Harvard Business Review called it the way to “turn the job you have into the job you want.” Designing a job no longer needs to be top down.
When you enable your people to job craft, employees expand their jobs beyond what they must do to include what they want to do. Job crafting can benefit employees and managers, and thinking through the options collaboratively is a good first step.
To harness the power of job crafting, don’t make it a one-time event. It’s an ongoing process, so at each stage, make sure to help employees get closer to the impact, to better feel the mission in their work.
2. SHOW THE DESTINATION, NOT THE WAY.
Micromanagement is counterproductive, unnecessary, and stressful. It’s bad for morale, bad for building trust, and bad for company culture. Consider the opposite end of the spectrum: giving employees complete control of the process. Let them lean into their potential.
Create goals together, and come up with a cohesive vision. Clearly share the purpose of these goals. Then, allow your team full discretion to iterate, experiment, and discover exactly how to get there.
We’ve been experimenting with this at ReWork, and the biggest lesson learned is: when you communicate the intent, you truly empower your team. When you share the purpose, employees can use their own ingenuity to solve the problem and adapt along the way.
3. ENCOURAGE EMPLOYEES TO CREATE A LEGACY.
Talented high-achievers are driven by the impact of their work. They need to feel the impact. Share with your talent exactly how they — and your organization — are making a dent in the universe.
One major way to showcase impact is by connecting your team to your customers, especially if they’re not in frequent contact. Share customer stories and testimonials. Let it be known that your collective work matters.
Adam Grant of Give and Take says that, “Seeing impact can reduce the burnout of people who give and give. Having a greater impact is one of the reasons why, counterintuitive as it might seem, giving more can actually help you avoid burnout.” 2
Defend space for employees to create their own meaning.
Bringing meaning to work — for both blue collar and white collar jobs — requires defending space and making room for these creative approaches to work.
And the best part? You can create a place for employees’ quest for meaning can unfold without spending a dime.
As a motivator for your company, look for opportunities to infuse play, potential, and purpose into projects and conversations. And find out how these three elements of work influence you, too.
We’re all looking for meaningful work, but it doesn’t have to mean world peace. It can be as simple as having an impact on someone else, doing your best, and being valued by your colleagues. When we have a work that lets us play, realize our potential, and gives us purpose, we simply do better work.
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