Back in the day, when work was invariably tied to religion, the spirit of hard work and progress was justified for even the most mundane professions. There was a deep meaning and value associated with work, irrespective of the extrinsic reward. But when industrialization came flooding in, finding meaning in work became about the returns -- what having a job would provide in terms of position and pay.
Over time these beliefs and attitudes toward work have been baked into our organizations. Further cooked by Adam Smith's "Wealth of Nations" our division of labor meant breaking work down into the smallest, most mundane, wholly mind-numbing activities so as to produce more, faster. In the spirit of productivity, and in the heyday of the industrial boom, this logic admittedly held some value. But that revolution ended about 200 years ago, and we haven't updated our attitude and approach toward work since.
Our organizations suffer as a result, as does society as a whole. Work has broken down, because for so many it does not hold significant meaning. Some, like yourself, may want to help remedy this and become a bold leader. You'll first need to establish a deep meaning in your professional life as well as in the lives of your employees.
Finding Meaningful in Work
Perception of our own work rests upon what drives us. Psychologist Barry Schwartz, together with Yale School of Management Professor Amy Wrzesniewski, report that internal motivations for why we do what we do trump instrumental ones. Where status and a paycheck are instrumental motives, approaching mastery and being challenged in work are internal ones. Being motivated by both internal and external motives compete against one another, and by effect, can stunt the professional progress of your teams.
Turning the Job you Have Into the One You Love
For many of the employees you will lead, a lack of their engagement may be addressed by them changing jobs or even careers. For others, it may involve something much more subtle -- turning the forsaken job they have into one they love. Wrzesniewski, together with University of Michigan professor Jane E. Dutton and Wharton doctoral student Justin M. Berg, report that job crafting might do just the trick.
Simply put, they take the various building blocks within their jobs and recombine them to better align with their talent and interests. As an example, in the study, a hospital cleaner took it upon herself to perform many activities outside of her job specifications. She might regularly dust the ceilings so patients don't have to stare at dirty walls or bring water to thirsty patients between nursing shift changes. She saw herself not just as a cleaner but as a caretaker. Expanding her job, within reason, allowed her to derive more meaning.
Job crafting, done well, entails learning how to tie your job to distinct passions, strengths and values. Job crafters bring their whole selves to work. In so doing, customers, colleagues and the organization as a whole reap the benefits.
The Destroyer of Meaningfulness
You could be thinking it sounds all too easy, and what about your positional authority as a leader? Take Japan, for example, where it's sacrilegious to go home before the big boss does, even if there is no work to do. In the new economy, Theory Y-styled managers are winning over Theory X ones. If you are an enabling leader then you won't, by virtue, hinder effective job crafting by your staff.
Need more evidence? Research from MIT has shown that quality of leadership is rarely mentioned when people talk about meaningful moments at work. Rather, it is bad management that is, "The destroyer of meaningfulness."
Good leaders go unnoticed while the poor ones actually erase a sense of meaning for their staff. In these instances, there is often a values clash between the critical manager and the diminished employee. Additional studies have shown that hyper-critical leadership can also result in unmotivated employees, office in-fighting, serious health issues and yes, even premature death.
Reconfiguring a job and finding meaning does not occur in one fell swoop. It happens through small wins -- and with each baby step forward, the progress principle is revealed. Persistent job crafting consistently results in finding more meaning in one's work.
A New Necessity
As more and more companies clue in to hiring hunger over talent, the job crafting strategy will prove extremely powerful from a business standpoint. Businesses cannot innovate today if everyone within them remains listless.
Our organizations are fixated on a machine-age mentality that preys on our external motivations. We desperately need to stretch the boundaries, both as individuals and as organizations, and re-imagine the value work holds intrinsically. It's no longer a luxury to contemplate meaning in work -- it's a necessity.
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