Making work meaningful

By on July 11, 2013

Motivation is no longer a sufficient concept to gain productive work teams. We need to get our teams connected to and more engaged with what they do, in order to create efficient and effective teams, writes Belinda Davies. 

So what are the conditions that will enable people to find true meaning so that they become connected to and engaged with their work? I think it boils down to the following:

  • Make sure that they are working towards clear and tangible goals that mean something to them and that make a real impact on the business.

This means translating business unit targets into individual targets at every level of the hierarchy. For example, if a business has been tasked with delivering R30 million in turnover, what does this mean for each director; what does it mean for each manager; what does it mean for each team member? Knowing that I personally need to deliver R1 million in hours billed gives me my own stake in the target – and if every member of the team is delivering on their own target, it becomes something that everyone is engaged with.

  • Make sure that they have the skills and the authority to take action in pursuit of these goals – and that they can take specific actions in pursuit of these goals.

Perhaps I’m missing something, but I simply don’t get the logic behind attaching a South African contributor’s incentive to the performance of the Europe, Middle East and Africa division’s performance – unless that contributor has influence over the performance of specific individuals in the wider business unit. In fact, in current circumstances, where a lot of South African subsidiaries of global companies are doing well, this becomes a disincentive since they get penalised for what is happening in Europe – this results in alienation, which is the very opposite of being engaged.

  • Make sure that they get support when they need it.

Support comes in many forms. It can be someone to bounce ideas off of or problem-solve with; it can be information; it can be material assistance and resources; and it must include coaching. There is nothing more discouraging when you share a frustration or problem with your manager and they respond by saying “Solve it. You’re in charge.” Your business unit head is not asking you to solve the problem! They are asking you to engage with them so that they can find a solution. And if you don’t have the time to have these kinds of conversations with your business unit heads, then make a coach available to them. These people are not inadequate. They are simply like most of us – they are best at thinking things through when they have someone with whom they can think things through. Sometimes a problem becomes intransigent because we are too close to it. Having a useful conversation with someone who has some distance from the problem often unblocks the works and results in a breakthrough. And people feel supported through this process.

  • Make sure that there are monitoring mechanisms that gives real-time feedback on how they are progressing against those goals.

If you really want people to be engaged, make sure they can check how far they are on a daily basis – or at least weekly. Many corporate enterprises have become extremely good at measuring everything – and tracking progress well gives people a very clear sense that they are making progress against their goals. So if a business unit has to bill 2 000 hours per month, it should be possible to check at least weekly (if not daily) how the business unit is doing and how every individual is doing in contributing to the business unit target. Create a dashboard of your most important measures (in terms of both activities and deliverables) that can be updated quickly and which gives a snapshot of how things are going. This way you ensure that your most intense business activity is not all taking place in the last week of the month.

  • Make sure that there are more positive workplace interactions than negative ones in the normal course of events.

Work should mostly be a pleasant place to be. This is not to say that people are sissies and must be wrapped in cotton wool. In fact, my dealings with the corporate world shows that people in positions of influence and authority in corporate organisations have to be really tough and resilient, or they would not survive, much less advance. However, think for a moment what might happen if the energy people expend on dealing with and recovering from unpleasant and aggressive interactions were invested in actually building the business. Corporate bullying and unpleasantness wastes energy which could be better invested in delivering the goods.

If you make sure that these five factors are in place, you don’t need to worry about motivating people. Individuals are responsible for their own happiness. Worrying that people are happy is not the point – and anyway, people have an infinite capacity for finding an infinite number of things that make them infinitely unhappy, so you cannot make yourself responsible for happiness.

However, you will find that people who can see that they are making progress towards goals that matter to them, who have the skill and authority to act, who feel supported, and who work in an environment where the human interactions are largely pleasant, are likely to be happy at work – and happiness at work goes straight to the bottom line.

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