Work with purpose

As another component of the Future of Work thinking I’ve been doing, one thing that strikes me is the question of what helps people want to work, which I think pretty clearly will be important.  And I was reminded by my ITA colleague Jane Hart of the work of Dan Pink in his book Drive, where he isolates three components of what makes people engaged: autonomy, mastery, and purpose.  And I think this is a good list.

The idea is fairly straightforward: people want work that actually does something important, they want to be free to pursue that work, and they want to be developed in their ability to accomplish that work.   What work is appropriate for different people is part of the task of deciding who to hire, and who to assign to what.

And while I think autonomy and mastery are part of the picture, for sure, I want to focus on making work meaningful. OK, freeing up people from micromanaging is going to be a necessity going forward, but that’s part of the necessary move to agile organizations, and while that’s challenging, it has to happen for organizations to survive. And supporting people by giving them assignments that stretch their abilities, and coaching them through it is absolutely important, but flows out of the 70:20:10 model. Jane, in her valuable book Modern Workplace Learning, gives very specific guidance about managers developing individual potential as part of the larger picture. But the area that strikes me as something I haven’t developed my thoughts about before is finding ways to characterize work so that it connects to people.

I think work has to be meaningful (just as I argue learning has to be meaningful). Here I mean something specific, in that people see the connection between what they’re doing and the impact on the world.  And that’s not always done, and certainly not systematically or well.  And yet I think it’s a service to the employees and part of a thriving organization.  Heck, it probably even leads to better employee engagement ;).

Seriously, it first takes an organization that has a clear focus on what it’s doing. There’re the old stories about ice companies losing out when refrigerators came in, and I think that’s part of it: a very clear focus on what purpose they serve. And this is important to align an organization, and make the strategy easier to focus on.  A secondary desirable component, to me, is to understand what contribution the organization is making to the world. I think the ‘b corp‘ notion is a great one here. (I may be an idealist, but that’s the world I want to live in. ;).

Then, there needs to be a clear alignment between what the employee is doing and the overall organizational goal. I think that if there’s a clear purpose for the work, you have a greater likelihood for employees to be engaged.  No one likes busywork, after all, but even some drudge work that’s part of a bigger picture can be shouldered. And it also means that rote work, work that can be automated, should be automated, leaving people free to do the important work.   Very much like learning needs to see how the learning connects to their work and the bigger picture, so too should their work connect to the bigger picture, within and outside the org.

Not to say this is easy. It requires clear communication (queue the Coherent Org), and a clear vision, but these are steps organizations need to do.  The recognition that this alignment, coupled with a ‘safe’ culture (i.e. not the Miranda Organization), is the necessity for going beyond survival to ‘thrival’ I think is the catalyst for change in meaningful work. And that’s a good place to go.


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