A typical worker is driven to do meaningful things, at least in my opinion. What a worker looks for in a job has changed through the generations – from lifelong employment to getting money to doing something with purpose (admittedly, these are big generalities). Actually, an ideal job has aspects from all three generations: career security, comfortable pay, and impactfulness. Purpose, sometimes defined in a mission statement, should be part of a company culture. Moreover, it should be used as an instrument to attract and retain talent. Millennials are thinking about the purpose of a company; according to a Deloitte Survey:
Millennials overwhelmingly believe (75 percent) businesses are focused on their own agendas rather than helping to improve society.1
There is a Greek parable about Sisyphus often referenced on the subject of work engagement. Sisyphus is a man condemned to roll a boulder up a hill. Right before it reaches the top, the boulder rolls back down to the bottom. He repeats this over and over again; never accomplishing the task. Ultimate futility…
In our modern workplace, the outcome might be losing a bid, having a project mothballed, getting ignored by an audience, etc. Sometimes compensation satisfies the sting, but not always. Leadership has to be cognizant of this demoralizing effect and step in to alleviate the effects of deflated workers. This can be accomplished in a few ways.
First, give internal recognition. For example, if a project is mothballed, invest the time and resources to acknowledge the participants. Setup an event and presentation to talk about what was accomplished (at least conceptually).
Second, salvage anything of value. Knowing it affects the morale of those involved, set aside time to find resources. Then publish, share, and learn whatever you can.
Third, change the game from ‘finite’ to ‘infinite’ whenever possible. This means find ways to make a better move against the competition. For example, if a worker loses a sales bid, repackage the proposal, make it better, and bid again.
Fourth, validate skill competencies. Identify and endorse skills each worker acquired while working on the task; experiences always involve knowledge gains. If possible, let workers take over possession of the resulting product – something they can share as a work sample on a personal website and/or LinkedIn profile.
I wrote this piece a couple of weeks ago and was surprised to read a NY Times article referencing the same Greek parable, where the author made a counter argument:
Life is a succession of tasks rather than a cascade of inspiration, an experience that is more repetitive than revelatory, at least on a day-to-day basis. The thing is to perform the task well and find reward even in the mundane.2
His point has some takeaways. If you do a basic task, then you might as well do it as best you can, take your pay, and find other ways to satisfy your curiosities. (To apply “compensation” in the parable above, Sisyphus can take consolation in being one of the fittest men in ancient Greece!) In the modern world, many recent college graduates are underemployed and asked to do boring work; according to the same Deloitte survey, “Only 28 percent of Millennials feel that their current organization is making full use of their skills.” Best thing they can do is to show grit, build skills, and find purpose in other areas of their life.
Work is meaningful to us on an emotional, personal level. There are many routine, mundane, and uninspiring things we do as part of a job and simply getting paid is a motivator. Yet, deep within us, most of us yearn for some satisfaction and purpose in our career. Popular marketing guru Seth Godin calls it art. I agree. In a lifetime, you want to use your talents to create things and reach people in a positive way.
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