One of my favourite stories from the time of NASA’s Apollo space missions involves a visit by a group of guests to Mission Control. As they were walking down one of the building’s hallways, they spotted a man in a lab coat walking in the opposite direction and as they neared them, they asked him what he did at NASA. The man looked at the visitors and replied matter-of-factly, “I’m helping to put a man on the Moon”.
Of course, what makes this NASA employee’s response so noteworthy is the fact that he wasn’t one of the engineers or scientists involved in designing the rockets or overseeing the lunar missions. Instead, he was the building’s janitor.
It’s a story that came to mind in a discussion I had last week with a team of leaders where we were discussing the challenge many organizations face of improving the levels of employee engagement found within the various teams and departments that make up their organization.
Often times, these discussions reveal both a wariness and a sense of uncertainty regarding the complexity and difficulties involved in trying to reignite the internal motivations of our employees to bring their full selves to the work they do.
And yet, what this story of the NASA janitor reveals is the both the possibility and opportunity for us to use our leadership to create that kind of environment where our employees feel valued; where they know that the work and contributions they make matter because it’s tied to the larger purpose that defines our collective efforts.
Indeed, every time I’ve shared this story with clients and conference attendees, I see in their faces that look of understanding and hope that they too might be able to inspire all of their employees – regardless of the role they play in their organization – to feel that sense of connection and value to the shared purpose that defines why they do what they do.
Of course, there are numerous studies out there that have revealed the ease by which we can create that kind of sentiment within our workforce. For example, in a study I collaborated on with Phillips North America around employee engagement and workplace attitudes, one of the more intriguing findings was the fact that more than 50% of the respondents said they’d gladly take a pay cut in order to do meaningful work.
What this reveals is that people want to know that what they do matters; that it makes a difference and creates value [Share on Twitter], not just for their organization, but for themselves as well.
Unfortunately, the challenge we now face is how to keep our focus on initiatives meant to help inspire our employees while grappling with these increasing demands on our time, energy, and resources. Not to mention the faster pace by which we now have to operate amid a sea of rising distractions vying for our attention.
Faced with these kinds of conditions, it’s no wonder that so many leaders feel ill-equipped to provide their employees with the kinds of conditions that would promote and empower a sense of shared ownership in our collective efforts as this janitor at NASA had.
And yet, the truth is that while this faster paced, 24/7 interconnected work environment might be the new reality that we now have to lead within, this doesn’t give us the permission to disregard this responsibility in our leadership.
Indeed, the easiest thing for us to do is to complain about the unrealistic notion of creating opportunities for all our employees to feel valued; to know that the work they do matters and creates a sense of meaning and purpose for them as much as it does for our organization.
However, the simple truth is that leadership is not about accepting mediocrity as our status quo, as the way things have to be [Share on Twitter].
After all, if we consider any of those leaders – either from the past or in our present day – who we admire and continue to hold up as the gold standard of what a successful leader looks like, in every case you will find leaders who refused to be defined by their circumstances.
Indeed, successful leaders understand that we’re defined by how we thrive in spite of our circumstances [Share on Twitter]; that we don’t hang our heads in accepting a mediocre or unsatisfactory status quo, but instead encourage those around us to believe in our potential to challenge our present in the hopes of transforming our future.
In several of my talks, I remind the leaders in my audience that it’s our responsibility to ensure our employees are part of something that’s bigger than themselves [Share on Twitter]; that they know they’re a part of a grander vision to make things better than they are today because this is what ignites that passion, that drive in each of us to fully commit ourselves to the journey we’re about to undertake.
And to be clear, this doesn’t have to be glamourous or exciting work for us to enable our employees to bring their best efforts to our collective purpose. In fact, one study looking at the work attitudes of hospital cleaners found that one-third of these employees viewed the work they did as a calling because they felt that sense of connectedness and belonging both to the work they do and to the people around them.
Like the NASA janitor in the story above, these hospital cleaners worked for leaders who were able to help them see the connection between their individual efforts and the larger purpose that defines the raison d’être of the facility.
Indeed, neuroscience studies have shown that when we’re involved in a long-term collective effort, our brain creates this internal map of “we” that transforms how we view the work we do into something bigger and more meaningful that’s connected to our sense of identity.
And this is exactly what we see in the story of the NASA janitor. Although most of us would not consider his individual contributions as being vital to the Apollo space program’s successes, this janitor had nonetheless transformed in his mind how he viewed and understood his efforts so that he could see them in the context of the larger vision that encompassed every employee in this organization.
Is this something that’s hard to do? Absolutely, but that’s the nature of leadership – it’s not meant to be easy because you’re taking on the responsibility of honouring the hopes and dreams of those you lead.
At the end of our lives, we won’t be looking back at our years in the workforce to admire the size of our bank account. Rather, our true legacy will be whether our lives mattered; that we made a difference with the time we had [Share on Twitter], and that we helped to make things better than they were before.
Every leader we hold in high regard has appreciated the importance of helping others to satisfy this fundamental drive in our collective existence, which is why so many of us continue to honour and value the lessons found in their leadership.
Each of them proved to us that it is in fact possible to use our leadership to make things better than they are today. That we empower and inspire those under our care to not settle, but to aim for better; to dare to dream of not only a brighter future, but of a better today.
So are most leaders doing this? Well, we all know for a fact they’re not – both in terms of our own personal experiences and also from the numerous studies that continue to show these stagnant, low levels of employee engagement in organizations around the world.
And yet, all is not lost because we also see in several others studies how much concern there is among those in leadership circles for the impact – both in the short and long-term – that these realities will have both on their organization’s ability to retain and grow employees in their workforce, as well as on their overall ability to help their employees to succeed and thrive in the months and years ahead.
The truth is people don’t follow or support those who accept mediocrity as our reality [Share on Twitter]. We’re not inspired to bring our best to the table by those who lack the imagination and drive to encourage us to challenge and question what’s possible; of what we could really achieve through our collective efforts.
That’s why I continue to share this story of the NASA janitor with the leaders I work with – so I can help them understand that the potential and opportunity is there for us to create through our leadership a workplace environment where our employees feel valued. That we help our employees derive a sense of meaning and purpose in the contributions they make because they understand the connection between what matters to our organization and what matters to them.
In so doing, we can in fact ensure that a successful and thriving workplace becomes this century’s new standard thanks to our efforts to become the kind of leader our employees need us to be in the months and years to come.
Some other posts you may enjoy: