In earlier blogs we have learnt that it is our consciousness that distinguishes us from other animals. Because of this we can not only think but be aware of our thoughts. We can not only make decisions but are conscious of the process of decision making. Because of this we are not only aware of the present but can construct a memory of the past and project forward to an anticipated future. Because of this we not only have to deal with an external world ‘out there’ but have to deal with an internal world ‘in here’. And importantly in the context of this discussion, our consciousness imbues in us a sense of spirituality which compels us to seek a sense of meaning and purpose in our lives. We have, therefore, spiritual needs.
It seems an inexorable part of the human condition to try to make sense out of our lives. We seek for purpose and meaning. We have an underlying desire to contribute to something memorable, something lasting or something that has advanced mankind. It is though we have an unconscious realisation that we are part of something bigger, that our small lives are part of a larger tapestry that has more enduring significance.
In his book Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl related how those that survived the deprivations of the German Concentration Camps were those who had a purpose for living, however small. They clung to life to pursue their desired goals. They saw that life was not an end in itself but a vehicle for the pursuit of a higher purpose. Neitzsche wrote, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”
Over recent decades there have been disturbing societal trends. Traditional notions regarding families and communities have gradually been abandoned. Institutions, such as the church, which were once very influential in society, play a declining role in our lives. Governments and their various arms and agencies are held in scant regard by many. These changes have caused large numbers of people to lose not only respect for society, but respect for themselves. This has created a void – a void of meaning. More and more of us are seeking to fill this void in our work. We are desperately searching for meaning and we fervently hope to find it in our employment.
Many more people then (but not all as we will see) are seeking to find that sense of purpose in their work. This fact compounds the tragedy of unemployment. If a person relies on a job for both a sense of identity and a source of meaning in his/her life, to be without work erodes the very fabric of their being.
Similarly there is, I believe, the need for a huge paradigm shift in the notion of education. It seems to me one of the principal factors causing the alienation of our youth from our society is the inordinately long time they are required to spend in preparation before joining it as a contributing member. Work and/or a job role provide a sense of purpose, add meaning to the life of most of us. Yet we deny this fundamental necessity to those who perhaps are most in need of meaning, that are searching and striving for identity. Competing for academic acclaim may be inspiring enough if you are academically talented, but many in our schools are doomed to academic ignominy and have their self-concept crushed by being locked in to an endeavour where they can never succeed. Unfortunately the competitive nature of education normally assumes that for every student who has self-esteem enhanced by the process there is at least another one who has had it destroyed. Work is not so competitive. Every one who feels that they have made a contribution to society by their work can gain sustenance from it.
In traditional societies as soon as children were able, they contributed to the household economy in a significant way. Even in our own society, until the fifties and sixties at least, many of our youth without academic aspirations entered the workforce at age fourteen or fifteen. These young people, rather than being sentenced to years of failure in our schools became active contributors to our economy and our society.
I once thought that all human beings would seek to find meaning in their work – but I was mistaken. There are some whose purpose in life is fulfilled in pursuits outside working life and they come to work to meet basic economic and security needs for themselves and their dependants. There are some whose lives outside work are so demanding that they do not have the energy or desire to be engaged by their work. Others have become so dependent on society that they do not have the skills to work autonomously and wish “just to be told what to do”. Others have been acculturated into believing that work is a mechanism to exploit the worker for the benefit of the employer and therefore offer passive resistance to the process. Notwithstanding this, it has been my experience that by far the majority of participants in employment strongly desires that their work should be meaningful.
This then begs the question, “What is it that makes work meaningful?” Knowing the answer to this question is, I feel, one of the most powerful tools a manager can have.
Here than are the steps that a leader might follow if he/she wishes to ensure that participants in the workforce have meaningful work.
Firstly, workers need to feel that they make a difference – that one way or the other their efforts have a material impact on the outcomes of the enterprise. This, I believe is the essence of good management. Managers need to make the linkages between what the employees do in their day to day work and what the organisation is trying to achieve. This is what makes work meaningful. Even a small or menial task should be able to be linked to the purpose of the enterprise. If not then it should not be done and the employee has every right to believe the work is indeed meaningless.
Secondly the purpose of the Enterprise should be something with which employees feel comfortable. If we are to enlist such people to the purpose of the enterprise then it is imperative that the purpose of the enterprise be seen to be promoting (or at the worst at least not detracting from) the welfare of mankind. I do not believe that we can in the long term get people to align themselves with the purpose of an enterprise that is detrimental to mankind. Collins and Porras in their book Built To Last found that enduringly successful organisations had goals that were more than just about making money – these exemplar organisations had a social (or sometimes a moral) purpose.
When we look at the performance of people at work, there is a marked difference between that of those who are committed to the purpose of the enterprise and those who merely turn up to do the minimum required to earn a living. Enlisting the will of employees in this way must be the focus of management. It is unlikely that we will be able to do this unless the purpose of the enterprise provides a societal benefit.
At the level of the individual I have argued elsewhere that the first duty each manager and each employee has, is towards his or her own humanity. At the collective level it is no different. Surely an enterprise has a responsibility to make a net positive contribution to society. Yes we know that it has to make a profit to exist, but not at the expense of the world! Obviously the two concepts are linked. We would not be nourishing our own humanity if we felt that we were involved in an enterprise that was essentially profiting at the expense of the world. All enterprises have some undesirable side effects and I am not so idealistic as to believe that all of these will be eliminated. I am suggesting that the overall impact of the enterprise on society (taking into consideration both the positive and negative impacts) must on balance be favourable.
This then is the key. We have an enterprise where those that work there can align themselves with the organisation’s purpose. And we have made connections for each one of them, between what they do on a day to day basis and what the organisation is trying to achieve. Each worker can then see how they can impact on this purpose that they believe is worthwhile. This is indeed what makes work meaningful. Now we have people who not only want to achieve what the organisation wants to achieve but understand how they impact on such outcomes. When work is meaningful in this way we have commitment. When we have made the connections for each so they know how they impact on the organisation’s purpose, we have also eliminated the need for a good deal of supervision. From these processes we have the key to motivation and self-management.
Looking downward the ambition of the manager should be to empower the employees. Ideally employees should act as partners in the business. In order for this to happen we must share information with them. This is not appreciated by many managers who either fear that employees will not protect the confidentiality of sensitive business information or are patronising enough to believe that the average employee will not be able to understand the implications of the information. There is no better way of demonstrating trust than sharing such information with employees. A quote I remember reading stated, “People without information cannot behave responsibly. People with information cannot help but to act responsibly.” Empowering people can not be achieved unless we make people feel good about themselves. Nurturing trust by sharing information with them is a valuable strategy towards this end.
Workers need to know about the business. No manager can expect that the intelligent worker of today will follow a directive just because the person who gave it has positional authority. If they are aligned with the purpose of the business they need to know why doing something is important to the business. I believe most workers want to be involved. They want to participate. They want to believe their employers value them and appreciate their contributions. Good communications is important because it helps those receiving the message believe that they are important. It is a recognition of their maturity, of their essential partnership in the enterprise.
I have argued elsewhere that effective organisations have accepted a values hierarchy that acknowledges that the welfare of the group must come before the welfare of the individual and the welfare of the organisation must come before that of the group. It is unlikely that individuals will subsume their welfare to that of the organisation if they do not believe in the purpose of the organisation!
Here is a quote from The Australian Friday December 18, 2009. “He is paid a fraction of a doctor’s salary, yet hospital cleaner Jim Anderson reckons his work is just as important.
‘If you are not doing your job properly, infection can spread and people can die,’ he said yesterday from the Canberra hospital where he works.”
This worker obviously knows the importance of what he is doing and how his work contributes to the goals of the enterprise.
Probably the most visible and the most current of social impacts are environmental. Environmental legislation is becoming more and more demanding. Enterprises know that there are substantial costs to non-compliance and the likelihood in the long term of the enterprise being shut down as a result of long-term or gross non-compliance. In the face of this, many organisations are seeking to ensure that they meet the minimum legal requirements for emissions. But this is not enough. Working in our organisations are many articulate well-educated people who know better than the public at large our environmental impacts. If our responses are seen to be meagre and motivated by a mere desire to comply at minimal cost, they are hardly likely to be committed to our cause. Our response to environmental concerns should be to do the best that technology and reasonable commercial prudence will allow.
Similarly the issues of health and safety, both for our employees and those of the public that we interface with, must be driven by a genuine concern for their welfare and not again by the mere necessity for legal compliance. And so we could go on, with issues of social justice, relationships with the local community, an obligation to train, etc.
In The Fourth Wave Herman Bryant Maynard,Jr., and Susan E Mehrtens have summarised the above ideas in this way.:- “Once seen as a way to make a living or a way to get rich, business is rather seen today as a vehicle through which individuals can realize their personal vision, serve others and the planet, and make a difference in the world.”
Meaningful work then aligns employees with the organisation’s purpose and makes explicit how they as individuals and groups can impact on that purpose. But that may not be enough. This is only one half of the equation. It is about showing employees that they can have an impact at work on something that matters. The other half of the equation is the impact work has on the employee.
A significant proportion of our workforce is seeking opportunities for personal development from their work and work environment. Meaning is experienced through our own process of becoming. Good work in an appropriate culture can provide such a process.