Series Meaningfulness at Work: Being engaged

There are many things in the work environment that are outside of our control. But if we want to be happier and more fulfilled at work, we have the power to change our attitude and be completely engaged in whatever it is that we are doing.

While walking down the street, a man saw three bricklayers at work. He walked up to the first bricklayer and asked, “What are you doing?” The first bricklayer replied, “I am laying bricks.” The man walked up to the second bricklayer and asked, “What are you doing?” The second bricklayer replied, “I am building a wall.” The man walked up to the third bricklayer and asked, “What are you doing?” The third bricklayer replied, “I am helping to build to most beautiful museum the world has ever seen, and people will come for miles just to gaze upon its beauty.”

In your opinion, which of those bricklayers probably had the greatest satisfaction with his work? Which of those bricklayers would you want as your co-worker or your employee? Which of those bricklayers would you want to be? All three bricklayers were doing the exact same thing, working on the exact same project. The only difference was their attitude.

Research on employee engagement tells us that only about 29% of employees are actively engaged, with a positive attitude and strong commitment toward their job. So if 50 salespeople are on the same team, we can estimate that only 15 team members are actively doing the best job they can. Another 8 people are miserable and quietly grumbling to anyone who will listen. And the remaining 27 people – more than half the team – are simply there to collect their paychecks and go home for the day.

As Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote,”If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.”

Whatever your job might be, may you find satisfaction in doing it well!


Series on Meaningfulness at Work: Motivating Employees

Most people think that the key to employee motivation is giving performance-based raises. People will work harder for an uptick in their monthly paycheck. But this common motivation tactic doesn’t actually do much, according to a Harvard Business Review article that detailed the findings of an analysis of 120 years of previous research. They found little correlation between pay and job satisfaction. One analysis cited found that incentives targeting extrinsic motivations actually had a negative impact on employees’ intrinsic motivation – and this was particularly true where job tasks are interesting rather than boring. More money does not equal more motivation.

Intrinsic motivators are the keys to success and improved engagement in the workplace. So here are a few simple ways to motivate your employees when raises and rewards fail:

Create a Culture of Respect – Studies have quantified the positive impact an atmosphere of consideration and respect has on stimulating creative output. Nothing saps energy or creativity like dreading having to work with someone who’s dismissive, short-tempered, or just plain mean. We’re all adults, and sometimes difficult conversations must be held. But that’s not license to treat people badly. Think of all the mental health days you’ll save because none of your employees have those days where they just can’t bear going into the office and having to deal with so-and-so.

Give People Their Time Away – Having said that, your employees don’t exist solely in the agency environment. They’re people with lives outside of work. An important way to treat them with kindness and respect is to show them that their work-life balance matters to you. Keep an eye out for employees who never take their vacation time. Insist that they do so. Carrying our work on our phones has its advantages, but it keeps us tethered to the office as well. Enforce stricter boundaries between work and personal time. Do your employees really need to reply to emails sent at 10 p.m.? What’s the underlying lapse that resulted in a 10 p.m. email anyway? Address that instead of expecting employees to be on call 24/7.

Mentor Them – Two years from now, few employees will want to keep doing the exact same work they’re doing now. Motivate employees by providing them unambiguous paths to grow professionally. Theoretical potential won’t do. This means constructive feedback on current work, as well as consistent opportunities to take on new tasks and projects. In addition, set aside budget to pay for employees to attend formal training and conferences, both online and in-person. Always promote from within wherever possible. If it’s not possible, that’s a big red flag that your staff isn’t getting the mentoring and growth opportunities they need. You need them to grow so your agency can continue to service ever higher quality clients, instead of having to react to high employee churn because they leave to find their opportunities elsewhere.

Leadership Matters – Implementing these motivation strategies requires a compatible agency culture. And culture starts with the agency leadership. According to a recent Gallup study measuring the engagement of 27 million employees all over the world, managers account for 70% of the variation of employee engagement. Clearly, no single factor determines the level of employees’ motivation more than their managers. Everyone reports to someone. Don’t expect your leadership team to be the employee-motivating managers you need them to be if you’re not providing the same.

Source: Jami Oetting,

Series on Meaningfulness at Work: Intrinsic Motivation

Intrinsic motivation refers to behaviour that is driven by internal rewards. In other words, the motivation to engage in a behaviour arises from within the individual because it is intrinsically rewarding. This contrasts with extrinsic motivation, which involves engaging in a behaviour in order to earn external rewards or avoid punishments. Of course, that isn’t to say that intrinsically motivated behaviour are without their own rewards. Instead, these rewards involve creating positive emotions within the individual. Activities can generate such feelings when they give people a sense of meaning (like participating in volunteer or church events), a sense of progress (seeing that your work is accomplishing something positive), or competence (learning something new or becoming more skilled at a task).

“A person’s intrinsic enjoyment of an activity provides sufficient justification for their behaviour,” explains author Richard A Griggs in his text Psychology: A Concise Introduction. “With the addition of extrinsic reinforcement, the person may perceive the task as over justified and then attempt to understand their true motivation (extrinsic versus intrinsic) for engaging in the activity.”

In work settings, productivity can be increased by using extrinsic rewards such as bonuses, but the actual quality of the work performed is influenced by intrinsic factors. If you are doing something that you find rewarding, interesting, and challenging, you are more likely to come up with novel ideas and creative solutions. Malone and Lepper (1987) define activities as intrinsically motivating if “people engage in it for its own sake, rather than in order to receive some external reward or avoid some external punishment. We use the words fun, interesting, captivating, enjoyable, and intrinsically motivating all more or less interchangeably to describe such activities.”

The factors that they identify as increasing intrinsic motivation are:
Challenge: People are more motivated when they pursue goals that have personal meaning, that relate to their self-esteem when performance feedback is available, and when attaining the goal is possible but not necessarily certain.
Curiosity: Internal motivation is increased when something in the physical environment grabs the individual’s attention (sensory curiosity) and when something about the activity stimulates the person to want to learn more (cognitive curiosity).
Control: People want control over themselves and their environments and want to determine what they pursue.
Cooperation and Competition: Intrinsic motivation can be increased in situations where people gain satisfaction from helping others and in cases where they are able to compare their own performance favorably to that of others.
Recognition: People enjoy having their accomplishment recognized by others, which can increase internal motivation.
Experts have noted that offering unnecessary rewards can have unexpected costs. While we like to think that offering a reward will improve a person’s motivation, interest, and performance, this isn’t always the case. For example, when children are rewarded for playing with toys that they already enjoy playing with, their motivation and enjoyment of those toys actually decreases.

It is important to note, however, that a number of factors can influence whether intrinsic motivation is increased or decreased by external rewards. Salience or how significant the event itself is often plays a critical role.


Series on Meaningfulness at Work vs. Meaninglessness

We have been reading about how we need to create more Meaningfulness at Work. There is an MIT research study which talks of the 7 Deadly Sins an organization can commit to create an atmosphere of Meaninglessness at Work.

Meaninglessness: The Seven Deadly Sins

One – Disconnect people from their values. Although individuals did not talk much about value congruence as a promoter of meaningfulness, they often talked about a disconnect between their own values and those of their employer or work group as the major cause of a sense of futility and meaninglessness. This issue was raised most frequently as a source of meaninglessness in work. A recurring theme was the tension between an organizational focus on the bottom line and the individual’s focus on the quality or professionalism of work. Nurses spoke despairingly of being forced to send patients home before they were ready in order to free up bed space.

Two – Take your employees for granted. Lack of recognition for hard work by organizational leaders was frequently cited as invoking a feeling of pointlessness. Academics talked about department heads who didn’t acknowledge their research or teaching successes; sales assistants and priests talked of bosses who did not thank them for taking on additional work.

Three – Give people pointless work to do. We found that individuals had a strong sense of what their job should involve and how they should be spending their time, and that a feeling of meaninglessness arose when they were required to perform tasks that did not fit that sense. Nurses, academics, artists, and clergy all cited bureaucratic tasks and form filling not directly related to their core purpose as a source of futility and pointlessness.

Four – Treat people unfairly. Unfairness and injustice can make work feel meaningless. Forms of unfairness ranged from distributive injustices, such as one stonemason who was told he could not have a pay raise for several years due to a shortage of money but saw his colleague being given a raise, to freelance musicians being asked to write a film score without payment. Procedural injustices included bullying and lack of opportunities for career progression.

Five – Override people’s better judgment. Quite often, a sense of meaninglessness was connected with a feeling of disempowerment or disenfranchisement over how work was done. One nurse, for example, described how a senior colleague required her to perform a medical intervention that was not procedurally correct, and how she felt obliged to complete this even against her better judgment. Lawyers talked of being forced to cut corners to finish cases quickly.

Six – Disconnect people from supportive relationships. Feelings of isolation or marginalization at work were linked with meaninglessness. This could occur through deliberate ostracism on the part of managers, or just through feeling disconnected from coworkers and teams. Entrepreneurs talked about their sense of loneliness and meaninglessness during the startup phase of their business, and the growing sense of meaningfulness that arose as the business developed and involved more people with whom they could share the successes.

Seven – Put people at risk of physical or emotional harm. Many jobs entail physical or emotional risks, and those taking on this kind of work generally appreciate and understand the choices they have made. However, unnecessary exposure to risk was associated with lost meaningfulness. Nurses cited feelings of vulnerability when left alone with aggressive patients and soldiers described exposure to extreme weather conditions without the appropriate gear.


Series on Meaningfulness at Work – What does it entail?

There are many studies that have been conducted on what entails meaningfulness at work. Researches from MIT undertook a study that revealed five unexpected features of meaningful work; in these, we find clues that might explain the fragile and intangible nature of meaningfulness.

1. Self-Transcendent- Individuals tended to experience their work as meaningful when it mattered to others more than just to themselves. In this way, meaningful work is self-transcendent. People did not just talk about themselves when they talked about meaningful work; they talked about the impact or relevance their work had for other individuals, groups, or the wider environment. For example, a garbage collector explained how he found his work meaningful at the “tipping point” at the end of the day when refuse was sent to recycling. This was the time he could see how his work contributed to creating a clean environment for his grandchildren and for future generations.

2. Poignant- The experience of meaningful work can be poignant rather than purely euphoric. People often found their work to be full of meaning at moments associated with mixed, uncomfortable, or even painful thoughts and feelings, not just a sense of unalloyed joy and happiness. People often cried in our interviews when they talked about the times when they found their work meaningful. Our research suggests that, contrary to what we may have thought, meaningfulness is not always a positive experience. In fact, those moments when people found their work meaningful tended to be far richer and more challenging than times when they felt simply motivated, engaged, or happy. The most vivid examples of this came from nurses who described moments of profound meaningfulness when they were able to use their professional skills and knowledge to ease the passing of patients at the end of their lives.

3. Episodic- A sense of meaningfulness arose in an episodic rather than a sustained way. It seemed that no one could find their work consistently meaningful, but rather that an awareness that work was meaningful arose at peak times that were generative of strong experiences. For example, a university professor talked of the euphoric experience of feeling “like a rock star” at the end of a successful lecture. Clearly, sentiments such as these are not sustainable over the course of even one single working day, let alone a longer period, but rather come and go over one’s working life, perhaps rarely arising. Nevertheless, these peak experiences have a profound effect on individuals, are highly memorable, and become part of their life narratives.

4. Reflective- In the instances cited above, it was often only when we asked the interviewees to recount a time when they found their work meaningful that they developed a conscious awareness of the significance of these experiences. Meaningfulness was rarely experienced in the moment, but rather in retrospect and on reflection when people were able to see their completed work and make connections between their achievements and a wider sense of life meaning. Garbage collectors explained how they were able to find their work meaningful when they finished cleaning a street and stopped to look back at their work. In doing this, they reflected on how the tangible work of street sweeping contributed to the cleanliness of the environment as a whole. You are unlikely to witness someone talking about how meaningful they find their job during their working day. For most of the people we spoke to, the discussions we had about meaningful work were the first time they had ever talked about these experiences.

5. Personal- Other feelings about work, such as engagement or satisfaction, tend to be just that: feelings about work. Work that is meaningful, on the other hand, is often understood by people not just in the context of their work but also in the wider context of their personal life experiences. We found that managers and even organizations actually mattered relatively little at these times. One musician described his profound sense of meaningfulness when his father attended a performance of his for the first time and finally came to appreciate and understand the musician’s work. The customary dinner held to mark the end of a soldier’s service became imbued with meaning for one soldier because it was shared with family members who were there to hear her army stories.


Series on Meaningfulness at Work – Givers vs Takers

There are three primary interaction styles at work as per Grant’s book Give and Take. Whereas takers strive to get as much as possible from others and matchers aim to trade evenly, givers are the rare breed of people who contribute to others without expecting anything in return. Not surprisingly, the majority tend to have matching styles at work. However, this proportion changes if you scan the top of the corporate food chain. It is neither takers nor matchers that make it into this coveted echelon. It is the givers.

It seems these workplace givers have discovered how to mastermind successful careers and find meaningfulness in the process–to proverbially have their cake and eat it too. What secrets do they hold? What they don’t do is drop everything to help others. Below are three practical and deceptively simple strategies they undertake to propel their meaning-laden success.

BECOME A MASTER CRAFTER: GIVE MORE OF YOUR TALENT – Job Crafting is a pioneering method created by Amy Wrzesniewski, an assistant professor at the Yale School of Management; Jane Dutton, a professor at University of Michigan; and Justin Berg, a current doctoral student at Wharton. The tool empowers you to rethink your role. In the end, you emerge with greater clarity on how to retro-fit your job to your unique passions, values, and strengths. The most successful and fulfilled at work are relentless job crafters. They are able to use the raw material afforded in their work to mold more meaning. In doing so, they find ways to give their best selves in service of what others need–a critical meaning-making ingredient.

IGNORE THE WHAT AND HEED THE WHY – Consider one computer manufacturer’s mission statement: “To be the most successful computer company in the world.” That’s great. But it displays a major meaning trap that many of us fall prey to–it’s all about us. What if the mission statement read: “To be the most successful computer company for the world”? Meaning comes when we realize the impact of our work on others. In fact, what distinguishes the most successful givers–versus those who burnout–is not what or how much they give. It is that they know the difference they make on others. People aren’t inspired solely by what they do. People are lit up when they know why what they do matters.

In the relentless grind of our daily work we often forget the positive and enduring impact our work has on others. A study of hospital janitors who cleaned bed pans and mopped up vomit–perhaps the lowest-ranking job in a hospital–saw themselves as part of a team whose goal was to heal people, which suggests that meaning isn’t about the job; rather, it’s about how you view your job. To paraphrase Marcus Aurelius, “Work itself is but what you deem of it.”

REMEMBER THAT OTHER PEOPLE MATTER – Research findings that the most engaged workers report having a best friend at work have become a well-cited statistic for good reason. If you look at experiences of those who report higher meaning at work, it is not what people are doing–but rather who they are with. This is consistent with a set of findings on what distinguishes our best days: days whereby we feel enlivened and truly thriving. These days include at least six hours of social time. In fact, even three hours of social time reduces the chances of having a bad day by 10%. Meaning is made in moments, and what matters most is the people we create those moments with.

Organizational consultant David Cooperrider subscribes to the notion that “what we appreciate, appreciates.” If we begin to appreciate the meaning that infiltrates our daily workplaces, then we will grow our capacity to seek it, and seize it. This, in turn, will increase the value of meaningfulness in our work and ensure that it gains the esteemed position it so desperately deserves: a position alongside happiness.

Source—Jessica Amortegui,

Series on Meaningfulness at Work – Being Happy

“I just want to be happy.” We have all said it at one time or another. The wish for happiness is one of our most widely held goals in life. But here’s the rub. Recent research suggests that happiness–as the be-all and end-all–isn’t the only ingredient to a life well-lived. As a result, some researchers are cautioning against the pursuit of mere happiness and advocating for the pursuit of its closest cousin: meaning.

At first blush, it may seem peculiar that there is a difference between feeling happy and finding life meaningful. In fact, they are positively correlated–but they don’t always go together. Findings from a recent study conducted by Dr. Barbara Fredrickson, professor of psychology at University of North Carolina and her colleagues, examined self-reported levels of happiness and meaning, and the results were alarming: a whopping 75% of subject participants scored high on levels of happiness, but low on levels of meaning.

This divergence holds vast insight into where we invest and focus our energy, especially in the workplace. Increasing a sense of meaningfulness at work is one of the most potent–and underutilized–ways to increase productivity, engagement, and performance. Consider the latest survey findings from the Energy Project, an engagement and performance firm that focuses on workplace fulfilment, as well as the recent New York Times story on why many hate their jobs. The survey, which reached more than 12,000 employees across a broad range of companies and industries, found that 50% lack a level of meaning and significance at work.

Moreover, employees who derive meaning from their work are more than three times as likely to stay with their organizations – the highest single impact of any other survey variable they tested. By this account, meaning trumps items related to learning and growth, connection to a company’s mission, and even work-life balance. And the employees who have meaning don’t just stick around longer. They also report 1.7 times higher job satisfaction, and are 1.4 times more engaged at work.

Meaning matters, but how exactly do we find more meaning at work? It’s important to first understand why what makes us happy may not always bring more meaning, and vice versa. To answer this question, a recent Stanford research project, asked nearly 400 Americans whether they thought their lives were either happy or meaningful or both. The dissonance, in part, was how the two groups approach social interactions. Happiness is associated with being a ‘taker’, focusing on what one gets from others. Meaningfulness, in contrast, comes from being a ‘giver’, suspending what one wants and desires for a fair amount of self-sacrifice.

In other words, to amp up the meaning in work, we must temper our taking tendencies and dial up our acts of giving. This is an appreciable shift, especially when the modus operandi in most workplaces is to continuously seek more time, resources, and attention from others. Meaning is premised on an entirely different way of interacting–that is, giving to others in service of the ‘greater good’. Increasing a sense of meaningfulness at work is one of the most potent–and underutilized–ways to increase productivity, engagement, and performance.

Source—Jessica Amortegui,

Series on Building Confidence – Practise, practise…

Even the most successful people lack self-confidence at certain times. Self-confidence is not a static quality; rather, it’s a mindset that takes effort to maintain when the going gets rough. It must be learned, practiced and mastered just like any other skill. But once you master it, you will be changed for the better.

Positive energy and confidence in self leads to positive outcomes, so If your mind is set to the can-do side of any situation, avoiding the negative self-talk that can make one feel less confident.

It was this confidence that kept John Grisham going. He started out as a lawyer who loved to write. His first book A Time to Kill took three years to write and was rejected 28 times. He’s now gone on to sell over 250 million copies of his books.

Series on Building Confidence – Learning from Mistakes

Performing a role or completing a task confidently is not about not making mistakes. Mistakes are inevitable, especially when doing something new. Confidence includes knowing what to do when mistakes come to light and therefore is also about problem solving and decision making.

Milton Hershey’s chocolate enterprise was his third business after failing on the first two. Hershey grew up in the rolling farm country of Pennsylvania. Before he became interested in making chocolate, Milton Hershey trained to become a printer. He worked for a small newspaper at first, and then decided that printing was not the right profession for him.

Then he got a job at a candy factory in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, a few miles from his home. After working a few years at the candy factory, he decided to open his own little candy business near Philadelphia. His first business had to close down because it was not making money. After closing down his first business, he traveled to Denver, Colorado, to learn how to make caramels.

He took his new skills back to New York and worked selling candies on the street. But this second business also failed. Finally, Milton Hershey moved back to the farm hills where he grew up. He then experimented with all sorts of different candies and chocolates. The area where he lived had lots and lots of dairy farms, so he had a large and easy supply of fresh milk.

And he could get other supplies, such as sugar, from nearby Philadelphia. By 1893 he was selling a million dollars worth of caramel candy per year. By experimenting, Milton Hershey discovered how to make delicious chocolate by using fresh, sweet condensed milk. His milk chocolates were so popular that he sold his caramel factory and focused his business on making chocolate only.

In 1903, the same year the Wright Brothers flew the first airplane at Kitty Hawk, Milton Hershey built a huge chocolate factory and an entire town to go with it. The town of Hershey, Pennsylvania.

Series on Confidence Building – Overcoming fear of rejection

Confidence is not something that can be learned like a set of rules; confidence is a state of mind. Positive thinking, practice, training, knowledge and talking to other people are all useful ways to help improve or boost your confidence levels. Confidence comes from feelings of well-being, acceptance of your body and mind (self-esteem) and belief in your own ability, skills and experience.

Steven Spielberg wanted to study film at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts. However, he was rejected due to his “C” grade average. He applied for the second time but got rejected again. Overall, he applied to USC three times- but was rejected all three times. He then applied and was admitted to California State University, Long Beach, where he majored in English.

While still a student, he was offered a small unpaid intern job at Universal Studios with the editing department. He was later given the opportunity to make a short film for theatrical release, the 26-minute, 35mm, Amblin’, which he wrote and directed.

Studio vice president Sidney Sheinberg was impressed by the film, which had won a number of awards and offered him a seven-year directing contract. It made him the youngest director ever to be signed for a long-term deal with a major Hollywood studio.

Today, Steven Spielberg is a very successful film-maker and is known for his movies: Jaws, Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List, Catch Me If You Can etc. He has directed 27 movies over four decades, has won 3 Oscars, including two for Best Director.