Excerpt from The Culture Question:
Why do you work? Why does anyone work? Ask your friends and coworkers, and you are likely to get a variety of answers. But sooner or later, most people will say something along the lines of, “To pay the bills.”
Let’s begin by acknowledging that most of us do not, and could not, work for free. However, once we have obtained fair and equitable pay, we must ask ourselves: What motivates us to engage with our work at a higher level? Why do some people love their work while others take no pleasure in their tasks? What are the factors that lead to satisfaction at work, and what are some concrete steps we can take to make work meaningful for everyone in our organization? This chapter considers such questions as important factors in creating a workplace culture where people are happily engaged with their work.
In the qualitative responses to our survey, we found that employees had powerful words about their need for meaningful work. One person wrote, “I do mindless, repetitive work that feels like a straitjacket. I need to move on.” Another wrote, “We are overly focused on paperwork to the point where paper has become more important than the clients we serve.” What tragic commentary!
Leaders often bemoan the fact that employees are disengaged. It’s true that many people are bored at work. They seem to be passionless and lack interest, not bothering to invest energy in their tasks. Unfortunately, some organizations resort to quick and generic incentives in their effort to improve employee motivation rather than working to provide satisfying and meaningful work that leads to long-term engagement.
If you do a quick online search for “creative ways to engage employees,” among the results you’ll find suggestions like providing cupcakes, bringing pets to work, and setting up a reward system where employees can redeem points for things like flowers, gift cards, or appliances. These ideas are nice, but they are not necessarily sustainable – after all, who wants or needs a cupcake every single day? The problem with these suggestions is that they fail to get at the root of employee disengagement.
We have learned that the best way to engage employees over the long term is to capitalize on their abilities and provide them with tasks they find rewarding, stimulating, and worthwhile. We define “meaningful work” as work that is purposeful and brings satisfaction to employees by drawing on both their abilities and their interests. Meaningful work occurs when purpose aligns with an employee’s interests and abilities.
Work’s Bad Reputation
If you look up the word “work” in a thesaurus, words like “toil,” “slog,” “drudgery,” and “grind” will be at the top of the list. As a child, I, Wendy, watched my dad work long hours on the farm. He never complained, but from my vantage point, the world of adulthood wasn’t one I was eager to enter. Riding my horse across the prairies for hours, wandering in the bush, and swimming in the creek made for a much better life.
It seems that some of us view our work as a necessary evil, not something we’d choose to do if we had an option. Consider the popularity of Tim Ferriss’ book The 4-Hour Workweek. When I first saw this book, I had an instant negative reaction to the title. It seems to imply that those of us who work more than four hours a week are missing out on the good life. Apparently, less work equals more happiness. But I don’t find this to be true at all. Work does not have to be punishment.
Since my early days on the farm, I have grown up to find work that I love! In fact, there would be a hole in my life without it. I don’t find my work to be drudgery. I don’t necessarily like every aspect of my job, and there are tasks I would rather not have to do, but in the bigger picture, my work brings me immense satisfaction because it is meaningful.
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