Work to live, or live to work? We all wrestle with this question.
The days on the commute, in the office, on the airplane, at the computer, in the Zoom meetings — the days just grind on and on. Pretty soon you forget why you’re even working so hard and before you know it you’re seriously considering signing up for the Great Resignation because even switching up the grind sounds more interesting than facing yet another day.
Not only is working in the grind hard, but it’s not much easier to be leading in the grind. Even when you’re doing well, it can feel complex and messy.
In addition to achieving great business results, leadership is also about motivating yourself to motivate your team past the grind and into engagement. Many leaders struggle, rightfully, with how to motivate people because, in fact, motivation is intensely personal. It comes from within. As an outsider, no leader can get into a team member’s head and heart to truly “motivate them.” This causes too many leaders to take an every-person-for-themselves approach to motivation.
Bad move. Especially in today’s employee-advantaged market, such selfish leadership mindsets facilitate the person-overboard employee engagement crisis we’re in right now.
Meaning and purpose: The leadership imperative
It’s true that motivation is complicated and uniquely personal. Daniel Pink’s seminal treatise on intrinsic motivation, “Drive,” paints the no-one-size-fits-all picture of how to motivate people (especially knowledge workers) by giving them appropriate amounts of autonomy, mastery and purpose. And while individual employees and jobs allow for varying levels of autonomy and mastery, the universal element — one which any leader can deploy to help motivate any employee — is purpose.
Purpose and meaning are the universal human motivator because meaningless work is a form of workplace torture, leading to disengagedment, depression and negative health effects. Because purpose and mission are equally important to company success, it’s clear that the connection of employees’ personal purpose to the company’s mission falls squarely on the leaders who manage them both.
Only the laziest of leaders take the every-person-for-themselves attitude to purpose. Only the least effective leave each employee floundering in their own life boat, looking for their own meaning in the company’s mission.
In a crisis of meaning, the true leaders show up.
Why is helping others find purpose in their work so hard?
Helping your team find meaning in their work is challenging when your only tool is an organizational mission statement. Words on a page don’t have much meaning by themselves. People, including you, are what give aspirational words meaning. And unless you’ve personally connected in a meaningful sense to the company mission, you won’t be very good at helping your team connect to it.
To complicate things further, you may struggle to connect to a company mission yourself unless you’ve first grounded yourself in your own personal sense of purpose, outside any particular organization’s mission set. So, ironically, the shortcut to motivating others through purpose is to take the long road to finding your own.
I think this long-road journey is the pain point. I actually don’t believe it’s very hard to help others find meaning in their work once you understand it clearly for yourself, but I do believe the process feels very inefficient. And in today’s just-in-time business culture where “go slow to go fast” is more a slogan than a reality, such inefficiency feels hard.
But going slow to go fast on life and career purpose is pretty much the only way forward.
The inefficient and effective 7-step guide to employee engagement through purpose and meaning
Here’s the step-by-step guide. It’s messy, but it works.
- Ground yourself in your own sense of life and career purpose
- Convince yourself that working for your company’s mission advances your own
- Ask your employees what they find most meaningful in their work
- Listen to what they say while suspending judgement (this is the hardest work of all for most of us) and then say “tell me more” to help them explore their thoughts more deeply
- Share your own connection to the company mission (i.e., be human)
- Offer to help them reshape their work to be more meaningful to them and more valuable to the company (This is called “job crafting”)
- Follow up on No. 6 frequently, and continue to help them evolve their work toward meaning and contribution
Yes, sometimes, the process above will dump you and a few of your employees into the Great Resignation. Sometimes you’ll find misalignment and moral injury in the company culture and mission that simply can’t be overcome. When this happens, separation is the healthiest option.
But the rest of the time, this process will make work worth showing up for.
Dana Theus of InPower Coaching is an executive coach and expert in helping women in leadership. Her participation in Work-life Bliss help leaders and entrepreneurs connect to their career purpose and higher potential. Connect with Theus on LinkedIn.