Deprived of meaningful work, men and women lose their reason for existence; they go stark, raving mad. Fyodor Dostoyevsky
It really is a shame, but many employees trudge into work every day on autopilot. They’re corporate-logo-bearing zombies. They punch a clock, meander to their workspace, plop down into what may or may not be ergonomically correct chairs, and begin their daily countdown to 5:00 PM.
For these employees, there’s no real passion, no real desire, no pressing urgency about their work. And why is that? For some, the work just doesn’t matter. Don’t be so quick to assume they just need attitude adjustments. Before we go chalking those feelings up to those employees’ bad attitudes, I think we, as leaders and organizations, need to look in the mirror.
We like to speak in lofty terms about culture, employee engagement, etc; and rightly so. They’re very human, important things. They matter. Our people matter. Their work matters. But sometimes that idea — that their work is relevant — gets lost in the shuffle.
What I’m saying is that our employees need to know their work is relevant. They need to know it matters. And they need to know how it matters and to whom it matters. We’re not just running transactions or making loans or selling widgets.
A while back, I was speaking with some folks in the lending department at a financial institution. I asked them why they came to work every day. I asked them what they did during the course of those eight hours. I asked them if they even liked what they did.
The answers I got were sadly familiar. “Honestly, it kind of sucks,” said one.
“We fill out paperwork,” another chimed in.
Another piped up. “We process loan applications. That’s it.”
“I’m just here because I can’t find another job,” one even said in a moment of painful transparency.
My response? “Man, when you say it that way, your work does suck.”
I went on to explain what I thought of when I thought of a lending department. It’s entirely different from what they were expressing to me. When I think of a lending department, I think of a group of dream facilitators. These people come to work every day, and yes, perhaps fill out reams of paperwork. They put in long, ridiculous hours. They work their asses off to help make other people’s lives at least a little bit better.
It’s not just empty paperwork. It’s paperwork that is a means to an end.
The lending department enables other human beings to accomplish their dreams on a daily basis. Do you see the huge distinction here? They’re helping people, day after day, accomplish something that’s a big deal to them. They’re consolidating debt to make it more manageable. They’re getting a new car or boat. They’re finally purchasing their first home. After saving for years, they’re buying that retirement condo somewhere warm. The lending department isn’t just lending money – they’re fulfilling dreams. Their work matters. It’s more relevant and meaningful than they know.
Obviously this principle applies across departments. Teams and organizations that get this idea will have more passionately engaged employees. It’s actually a huge competitive advantage for your organization when your employees really understand how relevant and meaningful their work is. The question for us all is this: Do they get it? Do they know and clearly understand how meaningful their work is?
As leaders, it’s our responsibility to make that connection for our teams sometimes. We have to show them why their work matters and to whom it matters. It’s not just meaningless, mindless work. It contributes to something bigger. It contributes in at least some small way to making the world better.