The Meaning of “Meaning”


A personal observation

This month I’ve been teaching a project management course for the Rotary Peace Center Master’s Degree program at ICU (International Christian University).

The class is made up of experienced humanitarian workers from around the world who have won the Rotary Peace Fellowship.

Aside from the fact that they all agree that most humanitarian projects would benefit from more rigorous project management methodology (a subject I plan to explore in greater detail in a later post), the one thing that was impossible to mistake about them was their extremely high level of engagement.

On day one of the workshop many people showed up with varying degrees of jet-lag, having just arrived back from their overseas research projects. Some arrived at class without even unpacking!

The surreal level of energy, enthusiasm and engagement continued for the next several days. And it was a contagious enthusiasm: before long I was thinking positive thoughts and wanting to find ways to do more than what was expected and proscribed.

This is the most engaged and energized I have been in a long while and I think it comes down to the fact that in some small way, I am, for the moment, contributing to something greater than myself.

Engagement: a working definition

Truly engaged employees are fascinated and inspired by their work, committed and dedicated to the success of the business, and inspire others to similar levels of engagement.

And now for the data…

Research tells us that employee engagement is a major factor in workplace performance and organizational sustainability.

The Gallup Management Journal publishes a semi-annual Employment Engagement Index. The 2013 results for the US and Canada paint a rather sad picture (unless the image of zombie hordes in business suits and briefcases shuffling off to work puts a smile on your face):

  • Only 29% of employees are actively engaged in their jobs (This is actually the highest percent in the world). They exhibit passion and feel a deep connection to their work.
  • 54% are mid-level zombies: shuffling through their workday and punching the time-clock. (You know who you are.)
  • 18% of employees are totally disengaged. These poor souls are so unhappy that they spend their free time recruiting the undead to join them in the lower regions of hell.

Worldwide results:

  • Only 13% of all employees worldwide were highly engaged.
  • 63% of the employees surveyed indicated they were moderately engaged at best: mid-level zombies.
  • 24% reported that they are actively disengaged: undead recruiters.

Japan Results:

  • Actively engaged – 7%
  • Not engaged – 69%
  • Actively disengaged – 24%

The sad truth

You don’t run a humanitarian organization (unless you do) and your employees will never believe that they are saving the world (unless they are). However, there are some things you can do to increase their engagement level.

At the most basic level, employee engagement relies on people’s ability to find work that enables them to do what they are good at and empowers them to use these strengths to achieve desirable goals.

The function of intrinsic rewards in contemporary work

To understand how intrinsic rewards (such as meaningful work) contribute to employee engagement, one needs to look closely at the nature of contemporary work.

Most workers today are expected to self-manage to a varying degree. In other words, they are required to use their education, experience, skills and intelligence to make decisions in the pursuit of organizational objectives. This is how employees add value: problem solving and innovating to meet agreed upon goals.

Expectancy theory

Self-managed work occurs at the confluence of several key requirements, a system sometimes referred to as the “Expectancy Theory” of self-motivation:

  1. Commitment: Committing to achieve a desired and meaningful objective
  2. Choice: Choosing the best way of achieving  that objective
  3. Competence: Having a degree of confidence that one is able to achieve the objective, given the resources at hand
  4. Results: The ability to track one’s progress towards the objective
  5. Transparency: The understanding that whatever the reward system, it is transparent and consistently applied; that it can be considered fair

The beauty of this system is that it is a reward unto itself: once we commit to a meaningful purpose and begin applying effort to make progress against the objective, the results we achieve are a kind of reward in themselves. If the system also rewards us for success, then so much the better, but this is not necessary.

But what is even more remarkable about this system is that it rewards and reinforces conscious decision making and purposeful action (the opposite behavior to your average zombie). Workers must constantly make judgments about:

  • the meaningfulness (and desirability) of their objective
  • the choices with regards to how they do things
  • the competence of their performance
  • whether the actual results are significant
  • and if the system lives up to their transparency standards

The really scary part

Zombie 2 (619x800)

These judgments are what empower those workers who are engaged. And the root cause of your typical zombie, when the evaluation is a failing grade for the organization/system.

Perhaps the reason so few workplaces or managers support this kind of system is that it truly does put some power into the hands of the workers, encourages them to judge their employers (and employers’ objectives), make decisions based on those judgments and therefore seems to upset the “natural balance of power” and be terribly risky.