Early in my career facilitating leadership development, one day I jumped out of bed thinking, “I can’t believe I get paid to do this!”
At this moment, I realized what work is meant to be.
Too often, work seems to be something different. Instead of feeding our heart, modern work may be suffocating, crushing our souls given the higher incidence of stroke or a heart attack on Monday mornings, and for those who work for toxic bosses. Workplace stress can also cause other health problems such as alcohol or tobacco use, headaches, and obesity. Modern work seems to produce a lot of people counting the minutes, hours, or days to the end of the day, end of the week, or end of their career.
And if the performance falls below a certain level, the employee may be punished, criticized, and marginalized. Which always improves employee performance, right?
Real solutions are rarely found. Instead, either the person is shuffled along in the position for years, languishing on the bottom of the productivity chart, or they’re vilified and ushered out.
This ‘measure what matters’ mindset teaches employers to focus on the bottom line, bypassing the cultivation of morale, talent, hearts, minds, a positive workplace, and passion as the priorities. Profit and units created or sold are easier to measure than, say, passion, perhaps contributing to the problem. Also, optimizing manufacturing and business processes, though not trivial, might feel more concrete and tangible than engineering human motivation.
Human motivation is not an exact science but it is somewhat knowable. According to the Self Determination Theory (Deci & Ryan), human motivation is made of competence, autonomy, and relatedness. Competence is pretty self-explanatory but we often mistakenly assume that someone can do something because they ‘should be able’ to do it. The pervasive example of this in higher education is that if you have an advanced degree, of course, you know how to teach or lead others. In reality, you’ve learned how to pass tests at a certain level.
Autonomy is also somewhat self-explanatory but also has additional connotations. No one is forcing us to go to work under threat of death, but income or geographical constraints, or beliefs about the type of work I should do can limit my (perceived) ability to pursue the work that makes me want to jump out of bed every morning.
To really do my best work, I also need a workplace culture that allows me to learn, grow, and feel safe and respected. I need a sense of fairness, and to experience friendship. Otherwise, I cannot bring my best, most creative, or productive self to the task.
Relatedness means understanding the importance of the work we do. It might pertain to the downstream consequences if I do a great (or terrible) job for the people I serve (students or customers), the colleagues I work with, or the organization or people I work for. Seeing positive examples of how our work changes lives (or Earth) for the better can be very motivating; demonstrating that our business profits by changing lives (or Earth) for the worse can be demoralizing. One should not assume that these consequences are evident to employees, or leadership for that matter.
Relatedness also pertains to why this matters to me. For example, an educational mission might get me to jump out of bed every day, but it might be a giant yawn for someone who yearns to create political change or save the whales. It might be the best job in the world, but if it’s not a good match for the passions and talents of the employee, it’s just not going to work out.
In other words, when one’s sense of purpose aligns with their work, they’re much more likely to have the energy to shine. Going the extra mile to match purpose with project is worthwhile, but not always possible. If not possible, depending on the quality of work and the toll it is taking on each party, it may not make sense to continue the employment arrangement. If done kindly, and with support for the transition, both parties are likely to feel a sense of relief afterward.
In summary, when an employee’s sense of purpose aligns with the organization, it fuels their passion and energy, which fuels productivity. In that order. Skipping to the bottom line and expecting everything to fall into place on its own, or blaming the employee when it does not work out, is not a strategy for success.
This approach requires that one respect the humanity of the employee instead of just the transactional nature of the employment contract. The rewards can be exhilarating, culturally, energetically, interpersonally, and with regard to productivity and quality of work. And isn’t that how you would want work to be?
I thought so.