The longer we stay in a role, the higher the chances of our interests and values drifting away from the values of an organization. Things evolve within our lives and ourselves and, as we mature, the connection to our work changes—even if the work itself remains static.
Internal Drift and External Pressures
Highlighting this ongoing internal change is the pace of change all around us, which seems to demand that we keep up. Nonetheless, we are most often assigned to tasks/projects or promoted based on what others see in us, not what we want to do or aspire to be. Take for instance the talented bench scientist who ends up managing teams and budgets, not because she enjoys it, but because she was promoted into the role by someone who thought she would be a great manager.
External factors also play a role in changing the meaningful connection we have to our work. According to the Institute for Mergers and Acquisitions and Alliances, in 2017 a new record was broken in terms of transaction numbers—with 3,512 transactions occurring in Canada.
Indeed, more and more of us have experienced a merger, or an acquisition, which can lead to immediate staffing changes or a slow and gradual migration from old culture to new. Due to these external forces, together with our own internal changes, it is not just Millennials who are finding appeal in the idea of working in a meaningful environment.
Stasis Perpetuated by Fear
Still, change is difficult. It takes courage to leave a job, especially if you don’t have the next one lined up. People may not like their jobs and may not find them meaningful, but they feel that they don’t have a choice. Mortgage payments, child care costs and general living experiences are front of mind, and leaving a ”job” to find more meaningful work is a risk that very few people are willing to take.
Many of you reading this article may feel this or know someone on your team who does; you don’t like what you are doing, but you are unwilling to make a change because you don’t know what is out there, are afraid of not finding something or are afraid that no one will hire you. Fear of the unknown is preventing a great many from taking the individual steps needed to make the working world not only work, but thrive.
As with any great challenge, the quest for meaning on an individual and organizational level requires a steadfast commitment to facing fears before moving forward.
Finding Freedom in Letting Go
As a career transition counsellor specializing in outplacement, I have worked with thousands of individuals who have no choice but to look for work. For many of them, when they receive the news that their role is being eliminated (effective immediately), there is a profound sense of loss.
Research conducted by Holmes and Rahe, and the resulting stress inventory generated, suggests that job loss is the eighth most stressful life event out of a possible 43. However, once people work through this stress, they will often use the word “relief” to describe their new emotional state.
Why? Simply put, many were not engaged employees.
When changes need to be made at work and positions need to be cut as part of restructuring, it is often the disengaged who are chosen. My experience being on-site for hundreds of terminations is that disengaged employees are not performing because they do not find the work meaningful and that can be seen in the way they show up. They are perfectly capable of doing the work and could possibly be top performers in another setting, but they are uninspired, disconnected and, as a result, underperforming.
Moreover, while no one likes to be let go, the benefit is that suddenly we have an opportunity to pause, take a moment and realign what we are doing with what we want to be doing. Unexpected job loss gives us the ability to steer ourselves towards a role and an environment that gives us energy instead of taking energy from us.
Of Compliments and Complementary Futures
Sometimes the best thing for a disengaged, unmotivated employee is for them to leave and find meaning in another organization, but this doesn’t always happen. So what can organizations be doing to build meaning in the work employees are engaged with?
Through a series of creative social experiments using LEGOs, Dr. Dan Ariely, a professor at Duke University, was able to isolate several factors that were positively correlated with labourers completing repetitive tasks. Taking the time to review someone’s work—even just looking at what they had created and complimenting them—resulted in a higher chance of workers continuing to work a project to completion, even if they were compensated less and less as the project continued. Similarly, when people had their finished LEGO structure disassembled in front of them, or placed out of view, they were less likely to continue because they did not perceive their work to be meaningful.
Many Meaningful Returns
Unfortunately, we are not all blessed with meaningful roles and sometimes we drift away from meaning because of the changes in ourselves, as well in our work and global environment. On the other hand, your work might actually be very meaningful, but just not to you. Working in a high-paying, mind-numbing role could be very meaningful to your family, as it provides your family with options, but other options, more meaningfully aligned, always exist.
Then there are those of us who are blessed to work in an environment that positively affirms and recognizes the work we do. Where we find meaning in our work, we generally find good fortune also. Where we help others find greater meaning in their work—either with us or elsewhere—far greater organizational pictures are served.
Published in: PeopleTalk Winter 2018