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Published on June 11th, 2016 | by Nancy F. Clark

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The Secret To More Meaningful Work

By Jessica Amortegui—

Chances are you never said, “When I grow up, I want to dislike my job.” Unfortunately, many of us do.

A 2014 conference board survey found that roughly 40% of Americans don’t find their work interesting and a whopping 52% are downright unhappy. And yet, despite the discontent, we continue to toil away, working longer and harder than ever before.  “Our lives are choked with work,” wrote Richard Donkin in his history of employment, Blood, Sweat and Tears: The Evolution of Work. But it is not just our work that is demanding more from us. We, too, are demanding more from our work. And a bigger paycheck isn’t cutting it.

Ask people what they want in a job, and meaningfulness  looms large. Meaningful work ranks as the majority of workers’ top priority—not only above money, but also above promotions, job security, and even hours. And yet, despite the premium we place on it, our transfixion hasn’t translated into tangible progress; the majority of us still can’t get our meaning mojo on.

The reason is deceptively simple. While many believe it’s our work that is the problem, it’s really our beliefs about our work. We often assume we must trade in our ordinary jobs and conventional definition of success to find more meaning in what we do. However, a comprehensive analysis of data from more than 200,000 employees across industries found the single strongest predictor of meaningfulness wasn’t the kind of work we were in. It was the belief that our job had a positive impact on others. And this doesn’t require that we quit our day jobs and become neurosurgeons. Consider how one hospital employee describes her work: 

“I love patients, I love sick people. I have so much to offer sick people. Because when I don’t feel good or when I have had to have surgeries, the one thing that has gotten me though has been…jokes, just being pleasant, being upbeat and having a great attitude. And that’s what I enjoy most about being here. It’s so upbeat here…I consider it the ‘house of hope.’ And that’s what I tell all the patients and all the visitors. It’s a house of hope.”

The employee isn’t a surgeon or a nurse. Rather, Candice Billups is a member of the custodian crew. Her description of her work provides an indispensable lesson to us all. Meaningfulness is not in what we do. It’s how we perceive the impact of what we do.

Want More Meaningful Work? Examine Your Motives

One of those most potent levers that affects the perception of our work is the underlying motives we hold about it. Yale School of Management Professor Amy Wrzesniewski and Swarthmore Psychology Professor Barry Schwartz suggested in a 2014 New York Times article that we have two types of motives for why we do what we do—internal and instrumental.

Internal motivation links your work goals and activities to intrinsic factors, while instrumental motives—often called extrinsic motivators—link them to external rewards. If you are motivated to further your mastery in a specific area at work, it is an internal motive. Doing your work to receive a promotion, on the other hand, is an instrumental motive. Unsurprisingly, most of us have both internal and instrumental motives for doing what we do at work. But here is what is surprising: Two motives are not better than one, and only one of these motives predicts your success.

Wrzesniewski and Schwartz studied the trajectories of more than 11,000 West Point cadets, asking them to rate their motives for entering the academy. This included motives such as a desire to get a good job later in life (an instrumental motive) to being trained as a leader in the United States Army (internal motive). Remarkably, cadets with strong internal and strong instrumental motives for attending West Point performed worse on every measure—likelihood to graduate, acclaim as military officers, commitment to stay in the military, etc.—than did those who reported strong internal motives only. It didn’t even matter if the internal motivations were strongly held. Two motives did not provide an extra edge. Instead, they competed against each other.

This research holds the potential to be a game-changer for the workplace. Almost all organizations have built structures, systems and processes that muddle our motives. In many organizations our work is structured to keep our eye on the prize, and we can’t help but be motivated by the workplace adhesive that binds our efforts to externally-prized outcomes—regular promotions, sizable salary increases, high-potential labels, “above average” performance reviews, and so on. To find more meaning, fulfillment, and success, our workplaces need to do a one-eighty. They need to intentionally de-activate our external motives and re-activate our internal motives.

This is precisely what computer-accessories maker Logitech, in Newark, Calif., is doing. Unlike the traditional “individual development plan” undertaken by most companies, Logitech launched a global effort to provide everyone the opportunity to craft more meaningfulness into their work through an exercise called Job Crafting. Developed by Wrzesniewski, University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business Professor Jane Dutton, and Stanford Graduate School of Business Assistant Professor Justin Berg, it helps employees design their jobs to better suit their strengths, values, and passions. This subtle shift in development creates a seismic shift for most corporate cultures.

Almost all approaches to employee development address the “skill and experience gaps” required to make your next move. This evaluates people based on what we think they should accomplish. With Job Crafting, the perceptible shift is that there is no shortcoming you need to address in yourself. It’s not about identifying and building what you lack to prove that you are qualified to take on the next assignment. Instead the focus is inward and the motivation is to improve.

Your growth hinges on discovering and unlocking more of what you already have. In doing so, you are not evaluated for who you could be, but accepted for who you are. This releases you from others’ aspirations. And, it becomes a subtle reminder that your job isn’t creating an impact on the organization. You are. As we know from Candice Billups, that’s the sweet taste of more meaningful work.

As author and consultant Tom Rath reminds us, “You cannot be anything you want to be—but you can be a whole lot more of who you already are.” While it may sound like a Pollyanna platitude, it turns out this very ethos resides squarely in the quest for more meaningful work. When our workplaces treat us not as problems to be solved, but potential waiting to unfold, we find ways to become even better versions of ourselves.

Best of all, we are given permission to use ourselves as meaning-making instruments rather than mistakenly seeking it out in our jobs. And, as a result, it is not just our jobs we like more. We like ourselves more too.

 

Jessica Amortegui is a positive leadership development consultant and committed culture shaper. You can reach her on her website or follow her on Twitter.

Article photo by plantronicsgermany

Nancy Clark is CEO of PositivityDaily and Director of Forbes WomensMedia. She coaches companies and executives in business skills with the added benefit of training in positive psychology and happiness -- incorporating the latest scientific studies on changing brain patterns and habits. Clark believes that positivity is the next necessary step to engage employees.

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About the Author

Nancy Clark is CEO of PositivityDaily and Director of Forbes WomensMedia. She coaches companies and executives in business skills with the added benefit of training in positive psychology and happiness -- incorporating the latest scientific studies on changing brain patterns and habits. Clark believes that positivity is the next necessary step to engage employees.



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