“I have often blamed you in my mind for treating this or that person differently and reacting to this or that situation differently from how I would have; and yet the outcome usually showed you were right. ‘If we just take people as they are,’ you once said, ‘we make them worse; but if we treat them not as they are but as they should be, we help them to become what they can become.’”
This week, Gallup released their “State of the American Workplace” report. Put simply, there’s need for drastic improvement: Only 33% of U.S. Employees feel engaged at work.2
What’s more worrying than this lack of engagement is that it’s only improved by three percentage points over the past five years. This minuscule increase should be surprising considering the prevalence of companies proclaiming to invest in and value their employees over the same time period.
Valuing employees has been more chest-thumping than action.
And, employee engagement isn’t just a feel-good-warm-and-fuzzy concept; it’s tied to organizational performance: In the Gallup study, organizations in the top quartile for employee engagement had 24% lower turnover, 17% higher productivity, and 21% higher profitability compared to organizations in the lowest quartile.3
The Healthy Organization
Why then do we frequently design organizations to satisfy our need for control and not to maximize the contributions of people?
No organization can truly be in control if its employees are not engaged. Unengaged employees equal unhappy employees. Unhappy employees never have a company’s best interests in mind because they don’t believe that the company values them.
In studying human motivation, Abraham Maslow observed: If you don’t help someone realize their fullest potential, you don’t just keep them from growing, you also make them sick.5 And, not only is the employee sick, so is the entire organization.
This need to become one’s best self is a pillar of a healthy psyche and is at the heart of Maslow’s idea of self-actualization:
It refers to the desire for self-fulfillment, namely, to the tendency for him to become
actualized in what he is potentially. This tendency might be phrased as the desire to
become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming.6
Engagement and the ability to reach one’s full potential are connected to a person finding meaning through work. Finding meaning through work has two dimensions. As Chip Conley, founder of Joie de Vivre Hotels and Head of Global Hospitality and Strategy for Airbnb, writes:
I’ve come to realize that workplace meaning can be dissected into meaning at work and
meaning in work. Meaning at work relates to how an employee feels about the company,
their work environment, and the company’s mission. Meaning in work relates to how an employee feels about their specific job task.7
We’ve written about meaning at work before and how it can be created through things like core values that both pervade the company and are clearly linked to job functions, having a strong vision that everyone in the company understands, and corporate advertising. Companies still have a lot of work to do in this area—only 22% of employees strongly agree that “the leadership of their organization has a clear direction for the organization”—but for now we’ll turn to creating meaning in work.8
Finding Flow: Creating Meaning In Work
There are three kinds of relationships one can have with work: you either have a job, a career, or a calling.
The number one thing, across all demographic categories, that employees look for in a new job—51% of U.S. Employees are looking—is “the ability to do what they do best in a role”—60% rate it as “very important.”10
In other words, employees want to perform at their best—they want to find meaning in work and fulfill their potential—but organizations are hindering them from doing so.
For employees to perform their best, they need to fulfill requirements for what psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi termed the flow state. In this state, a person engages in a task that takes appropriate advantage of their skill sets. If the task is too easy for them, they experience boredom and lack of engagement; if the task is too hard for them, they experience anxiety which also makes it hard to become engaged.11
People reach their potential when their skills appropriately match their tasks.
Achieving these flow states is a constant process of becoming; it is never static. As Csíkszentmihályi writes:
It is this dynamic feature that explains why flow activities lead to growth and discovery.
One cannot enjoy doing the same thing at the same level for long. We grow either bored or frustrated; and then the desire to enjoy ourselves again pushes us to stretch out skills, or to discover new opportunities for using them.12
Grumble, Grumble, Grumble
All human beings are like children who get bored with a holiday after the first week.
Enabling employees to find meaning in their work isn’t the same as creating a utopian organization: there will still be complaints and frustrations. The goal is maximizing potential, not perfection.
In fact, complaints have positive implications: What they complain about can reveal the health of an organization.
When Maslow studied complaints in an organization—what he called grumbles—he concluded:
Human beings will always complain. There is no Garden of Eden, there is no paradise, there is no heaven except for a passing moment or two….we should, according to motivation theory, never expect a cessation of complaints; we should expect only that these complaints will get to be higher and higher complaints, i.e., that they will move from the lower-grumble level to higher-grumble levels and finally metagrumble levels. This is in accordance in principle with what I have written about human motivation being never ending and simply proceeding to higher and higher levels all the time as conditions improve.14
These grumble levels equate with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs:
- Low Grumbles: physiological, safety, and belonging needs
- High Grumbles: esteem from others and self-esteem needs
- Metagrumbles: cognitive, aesthetic, and self-actualization needs.
When employees complain—or grumble—look at the content and motivation behind their complaints. If the complaints are of the metagrumble level, you’re doing a great job in helping your employees find meaning through work and becoming their best selves. If not, the goal should be to raise the level of complaints, not the impossible task of eliminating them.
I might get shot if some of my friends heard me say this, but businesspeople probably have the greatest potential to transform the world for the better.
Helping employees find meaning through work increases engagement which increases company profitability and organizational health. Just like business has the potential to improve customers’ lives, it can also improve employees’ lives. Business can be a great force of change.
But too often this is not the case. When profit is the end goal, businesses usually try to control their employees and inadvertently create a sick organization that hinders profit generation: Employees are not motivated to help an organization that doesn’t want to help them.
These sick organizations, as management consultants Meg Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Rogers write, expect an extreme level of ignorance and passivity from their employees:
People do not respond for long to small and self-centered purposes or to
self-aggrandizing work. Too many organizations ask us to engage in hollow work, to be enthusiastic about small-minded visions, to commit ourselves to selfish purposes, to engage our energy in competitive drives. Those who offer us this petty work hope we won’t know how lifeless it is. They hope that life’s great motions are somehow absent for us.16
Organizations would be wise to realize that these “motions” are absent from no one.
Instead of seeking profitability, seek to maximize the ability of everyone in the organization—from janitor to CEO—to find meaning, be engaged, and become their best selves. Profits will follow.
Happy employees, happy profits.
- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (1795-1796), Eric A. Blackall translation, 1989. ↩
- Gallup, “State of the American Workplace,” 2017. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Abraham H. Maslow, Maslow On Management, 1998. ↩
- “A Theory of Human Motivation,” Psychological Review, Abraham H. Maslow, 1943. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Chip Conley, Peak: How Great Companies Get Their Mojo from Maslow, 2007. ↩
- Gallup. ↩
- Conley. ↩
- Gallup. ↩
- Mihály Csíkszenthmihályi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, 1990. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Colin Wilson, Beyond The Outsider: The Philosophy of the Future, 1965. ↩
- Maslow, Maslow On Management. ↩
- Conley. ↩
- Margaret J. Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Rogers, A Simpler Way, 1996. ↩