It’s very important to get the best work performance possible from your employees. But do your employees remember to pack their hearts when they’re packing their lunches? Are they merely going through the motions at work? Feigning “connection to the work” while in reality spending more energy avoiding trouble versus willingly contributing their personal-best?
As the leader or manager, how do you create “meaning” at work?
Have you heard the story about the custodian in a large federal complex in the suburbs of Houston?
He was going about his duties one day when a group of “suits” entered the building where he was working. One of the executives asked the custodian, “So, what do you do here?” The worker smiled and replied genuinely, “I help put a man on the moon.”
The VIPs were heading into a meeting with NASA officials that day and happened to run into this dedicated gentleman who truly “got it” — he fully understood his role. It wasn’t simply about cleaning toilets and mopping the floors. His work had true meaning. Because he was faithfully on the job every day, he helped create a spotless, VIP-visit-worthy space where other employees and visitors could enter and concentrate on their work at hand… putting a man on the moon.
Getting Better Work Performance From Employees
This gentleman “got it.” Not only about the organizational impact of his role, but the greater effects on a nation and perhaps the world. Without him, dignitaries and decision-makers would be greeted by unsightly workspaces, leaders and workers alike would be distracted by and frazzled by trashy offices and unsupplied restrooms. Not at all what one would expect from the nation’s space agency.
Sometimes we get lucky and hire that golden employee who just gets “it” and lives “it” day in and day out. More often than not, however, employees need reinforcing communication around why their job, indeed why they are important to the purpose of the organization. It’s not so much that we hire duds but that in the course of staying busy, doing our tasks as managers and employees we lose sight of the bigger “why.” It’s that old idea of not seeing the forest for the trees. We get stuck in the weeds and forget why we’re working so hard to create a path through them.
Kousez and Posner’s decades-long research into what inspires employees and creates a “personal-best leadership experience” (that is the experience an employee has with her leaders) offers empirical proof of what it takes to inspire meaningful work. From their The Leadership Challenge, 4th Ed., they point out the Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership.
Of the Five Practices resulting from Kousez and Posner’s research, this one — Exemplary Leaders Encourage the Heart — in particular speaks to creating meaningful work. To summarize and add my own editorial comments and personal examples…
Genuine acts of caring uplift the spirits and draw people forward. Best leaders want to provide a climate in which people feel cared about and genuinely appreciated by their leaders.
One of my “personal-best leadership experiences” was in the job where I stayed for more than eight years despite knowing there was something missing (function/strengths misfit… but that’s a topic for another post). It’s true people leave or remain because of people more so than the work.
One example that will stay with me as long into the future is one of my compassionate Vice President of Marketing who genuinely cared about me and my experience as a new mother seven years ago. It’s tough if not seemingly impossible to put one’s child in the care of others to return to work but we do it. My VP at the time was already a mother of two and understood the gamut of emotions I was having about returning to work. I couldn’t not, from a financial standpoint, but oh boy were those first delicate weeks’ commutes filled with tears.
The conversation I remember specifically was her telling me to take as much time as I needed and could afford… that time with a first baby in those first precious months needed to be cherished… that the company would survive without me. I think I took an extra couple of weeks off at her urging and some of my most treasured memories of early-morning play time with my now first grader happened during that brief window.
That VP showed she cared and cared deeply which drove my enthusiasm for for working for her much more than the work itself.
Gimmicky, feel-good events are quickly forgotten, so forget the Hawaiian shirt days and show them you genuinely care.
It’s part of the leader’s job to show appreciation for people’s contributions and to create a culture of celebrating values and victories.
As a young manager I was guilty of often forgetting to stop, breathe and take a moment to celebrate the small victories that my direct reports and I accomplished. Like getting a 100+ page catalog to print despite major roadblocks… closing out the year with more sales through direct marketing than the previous year… launching a new website that created back-office efficiencies… and probably countless others. With some time and experience managing direct reports — and remembering my own less-than-exemplary leadership moments from the earliest days of my career – I did remember, sometimes, to thank them.
Have you had one of those “You know you’ve nailed it when…” moments as a manager? One of my few such experiences actually came as a shock to me. It was when I made an effort to personalize my gratitude in giving a small “thank you” that I figured this one direct report in particular might like. He commented on the small gift so enthusiastically, reporting just how much it meant to him. Who knew that something as simple as an e-gift certificate for music downloads for the ever-plugged-in production manager would have such an effect. Huh.
Leaders also know that celebrations and rituals, when done with authenticity and from the heart, build a strong sense of collective identity and community spirit that can carry a group through extraordinarily tough times.
Before during and in the aftermath of 9/11 I worked for an international tour operator. The year that followed was extraordinarily tough for the many not the least of which was the travel industry and anyone remotely connected to it.
We had several tours in progress when the planes hit and had staff and passengers stranded in various corner of the world for days before flights resumed and we could get everyone home. When the last tour manager arrived safely at home and the last passenger was met by relieved family members, we celebrated. Not with a big inappropriate party or other raucous event but by rallying behind one another in the face of chaos and terror, sharing our stories and experiences, finding and telling the “good” that came from tragedy.
In those moments executive management stepped quietly aside and allowed leadership from among the ranks to stand up, shine and demonstrate community.
Lastly, let’s get practical with just a few questions to consider as you work toward helping your employees create meaning at work…
1. Connect Individuals To The Bigger “Why”
What inspires you? Gives you passion? What would inspire your employees and direct reports? In what ways are you working together to create the bigger “why,” the purpose for your organization?
2. Personalize Recognition
How are you currently recognizing individual achievement and contributions to your organization’s purpose? How do you equip managers to reward, recognize and thank employees for a job well done?
3. Reiterate The Significance Of Each Role
How often to you reiterate the organization’s larger purpose? Then remind each individual contributor how they in their roles help achieve that purpose? Annually in the all-staff meeting and in the performance review? Quarterly at management reviews? Monthly in the employee online newsletter? Or weekly/daily in informal conversations about the work at hand?
How do you celebrate team or organizational wins? Annual bonus? Cost of living wage increase? Or something more personalized to each contributor?
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