HR Transformer Blog


The Seven Deadly Sins Preventing Meaningful Work

Prof Katie Bailey

People are more likely to view work as meaningful when it mattered to others more than just to themselves.  In our article, “What Makes Work Meaningful?”, we highlighted some research findings on the qualities of meaningful work.

 

Professor Katie Bailey, from the University of Sussex, and her research team interviewed 135 people working in 10 very different occupations (retail assistants, solicitors, nurses, soldiers, stonemasons, street sweepers, entrepreneurs, priests, artists, writers and academics) and explored what makes work meaningful for them and also, what led to a feeling of meaningless.

 

The researchers found that that there were five key qualities of meaningful work and that times when people found their work meaningful were often intensely personal. Meaningfulness is bound up with feeling a sense of accomplishment and doing a good job.

 

For organisation designers, leaders and managers, it is interesting to investigate the question: What are the factors that serve to destroy the meaningfulness that individuals find in their work?

 

We have all worked in work environments that were dysfunctional in some way, I certainly have.  Tolstoy observed that happy families are alike, but unhappy families are unhappy in their own special way.  It’s similar with organisations.

 

 

Working out why an organisation is not a positive environment is a complex task, but employees working in jobs they don’t find meaningful is likely to be a contributing factor.

 

Here are some of the factors that destroy meaningful work, some of which might resonate with you too?  (Listed in order from most to least grievous).

 

The Seven Deadly Sins of Meaningful Work

 

1 Disconnect people from values

Those interviewed often talked about a disconnect between their own values and those of their employer or work group as the major cause of a sense of futility and meaninglessness. This issue was raised most frequently as a source of meaninglessness in work. A recurring theme was the tension between an organisational focus on the bottom line and the individual’s focus on the quality or professionalism of work. One stonemason commented that he found the organisation’s focus on cost “deeply depressing.

 

2 Take people for granted

The lack of recognition for hard work by organisational leaders was frequently cited as invoking a feeling of pointlessness. For example Sales Assistants talked of bosses who did not thank them for taking on additional work.

 

3 Give people pointless work

Individuals had a strong sense of what their job should involve and how they should be spending their time.  A feeling of meaninglessness arose when they were required to perform tasks that did not fit that sense.  Nurses, academics, artists, and clergy all cited bureaucratic tasks and form-filling not directly related to their core purpose as a source of futility and pointlessness.

 

4 Treat people unfairly

If people feel that they can’t trust their leaders to be fair, open and equitable, then they are unlikely to find much meaning in their work.  Forms of unfairness ranged from distributive injustices to freelance musicians being asked to write a film score without payment.

 

5 Disempower people

Quite often a sense of meaninglessness was connected with a feeling of disempowerment, or overriding people’s better judgment over how work was done.  Lawyers talked about being forced to cut corners to finish cases quickly.

 

6 Isolate people

Feelings of isolation or disconnecting people from supportive relationships at work were linked with meaninglessness. This could occur through deliberate ostracism on the part of managers, or just through feeling disconnected from co-workers and teams. Entrepreneurs talked about their sense of loneliness and meaninglessness during the startup phase of their business, and the growing sense of meaningfulness that arose as the business developed and involved more people with whom they could share the successes.

 

7 Put people at risk

Unnecessary exposure to risk of physical or emotional harm was associated with lost meaningfulness. For example, nurses cited feelings of vulnerability when left alone with aggressive patients.

 

These seven destroyers emerged as highly damaging to an individual’s sense of their work as meaningful.  When several of these factors were present, meaningfulness was considerably lower.

 

For those who are involved in managing teams or implementing digital transformation initiatives, then understanding which features  makes work meaningful for people is important.

 

In my article, The Campaign for Meaningful Work, I shared some thoughts on the “why of work” and the flaws with our past initiatives around improving employee engagement.  One impact of this, is that of ‘displacement’.  In HR, we could have spent the effort and energy (read blood, sweat and tears) on finding out what really does drive employee wellbeing and productivity in our organisations.

 

As an optimist, I believe organisations have the opportunity to solve current organisational issues if it brings in evidence-based approaches and capitalises on the employee/organisational data it has.  With well-designed and funded research programmes carried out by academics and practitioners we have a better chance of  creating jobs that provide meaningful work.

Reference

What Makes Work Meaningful — Or Meaningless   Bailey, C. & Madden, A. 2016 ‘What makes Work Meaningful – or Meaningless’.  MIT Sloan Management Review, 57(4): 53-61

(This was a guest post for HRN Blog)

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What Makes Work Meaningful?

Meaningful Work Glass Bead Consulting

 

Thirty seven percent of British workers think their jobs are meaningless, according to a YouGov survey, which is a really shocking statistic if you think about it.

In my article, The Campaign for Meaningful Work, I shared some thoughts on the ‘why of work’ and the flaws with our past initiatives around improving employee engagement.  In the absence of a strong causal link between engagement and productivity, my ‘hunch’ was that ‘meaningful work’ is important for our own personal sanity and well-being.

So the question for leaders in organisations and the HR community, is,

How can organisations provide work that is meaningful?

There are different ways of responding to this question and one source of evidence is to look at the scientific research.

I recently met up with Katie Bailey, Professor of Management at the University of Sussex to discuss her research on Meaningful Work.   A quick review of the scientific literature shows that there is surprisingly little research which explores where and how people find their work meaningful. 

As part of the research the team interviewed 135 people working in 10 very different occupations (retail assistants, solicitors, nurses, soldiers, stonemasons, street sweepers, entrepreneurs, priests, artists, writers and academics).  The group was asked to tell stories about incidents or times when they found their work to be meaningful.  

According to Katie, “the overwhelming majority of people seem to find meaning in at least some aspect of their job. In fact, 86% of people said that their jobs were meaningful”.

The team found that there were patterns of work from their research which they categorised as five qualities of meaningful work.

Five Qualities of Meaningful Work

Self-Transcendent, or working for a higher goal

People are more likely to view work as meaningful when it mattered to others more than just to themselves.   From the interviews, an example is the garbage collector who found work meaningful at ‘tipping point’ at the end of the day when refuse was sent to recycling.  This individual could see his work contributed to a clean environment for his grandchildren.

Poignant

Meaningfulness is not always a positive experience.  We don’t walk around in a euphoric state all day at work. For example nurses use their skills to ease the passing of patients at the end of their lives.

Episodic

Meaning can come and go during the working life, rather than an everyday occurrence.  For example, the lecturer “feels like a rock star” after delivering a good lecture, or the stonemasons leaving their mark into a stone that might be discovered in hundreds or years.

Reflective

Meaningfulness was rarely experienced in the moment, but rather in retrospect and on reflection when people were able to see their completed work and make connections between their achievements and a wider sense of life meaning. One academic talked about research he had done for many years that seemed fairly meaningless at the time, but 20 years later provided the technological solution for touch-screen technology.

Personal

Work that is meaningful, on the other hand, is often understood by people not just in the context of their work but also in the wider context of their personal life experiences.  An example was an entrepreneur’s motivation to start her own business included the desire to make her grandfather proud.

So, what insights can we elicit from this research?

First, it emerged that the individual feels that they have done a good job and therefore experience a sense of achievement or pride. No one said to us, “Hey, I did a really poor job today, but it meant a lot to me.”  For example, the street cleaners talked of looking back along the street they had just cleaned and feeling they had made an important contribution to the neighbourhood. The stone masons explained that they found their work meaningful when they had successfully completed an intricate carving.

Secondly, in most cases it was important that the individual could see they had contributed to their team, other individuals, or a wider cause. Some talked of the importance of a sense of camaraderie or belonging, others talked of times they felt recognised or valued by clients or the public. For instance, the retail workers talked of helping vulnerable elderly customers.

Finally, the times when people found their work meaningful were often intensely personal.  One entrepreneur had started her bakery business to make her grandfather proud of her. A hesitant author was emboldened to embrace her craft following a chance encounter with another customer in a stationery shop who assumed she was a writer. A soldier talked of the importance of her family being present at a dinner held to celebrate her military service.

Over the years I have shared my ideas about making work more meaningful, including linking the work to something bigger, empower people to organise their own work and ditching that annual engagement survey. 

If you really want to understand what employees think about their job, then ask them.  “Feedback is the killer app” for management, as Josh Bersin says.  New technology makes this possible whether using pulse tools or analysing responses to open questions such as Workometry.

For those who are involved in designing new organisations, managing teams or implementing digital transformation initiatives, then understanding which features  makes work meaningful for people is important.  You might also find this article of interest, "The Seven Deadly Sins Preventing Meaningful Work".  Hopefully we will see more workers finding meaning in their work in the future.  I am looking forward to seeing how this fascinating research area develops.

Reference

What Makes Work Meaningful — Or Meaningless   Bailey, C. & Madden, A. 2016 ‘What makes Work Meaningful – or Meaningless’.  MIT Sloan Management Review, 57(4): 53-61

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Visualising Relationships at Work

Owen Analytics ONA

We know that successful team dynamics is critical in building organisations, however many of our HR and people management processes are still designed around the individual.

We have embedded ‘institutionalised silos’ such as performance management, employee engagement, induction and  training, that are all geared up to individual performance, but focus much less so on the impact on their team or organisation.

According to Deloitte, 88% of respondents of a global HR survey, believe building the organisation of the future is an important issue.  This is sweet music to my ears, after years of fumbling around the employee engagement survey wilderness, we can start looking at the bigger picture and organisation structures, and ask questions like:

  • How does team cohesion impact performance?
  • Is there a relationship between team collaboration and attrition?
  • Does increased collaboration impact output?
  • Does a hierarchical structure impact retention?
  • Who are the most influential people in our organisation?
  • Can we see what good leadership looks like?
  • Can we detect bottlenecks in an organisation?
  • Which individual are at risk of leaving the organisation?
  • Can we detect ‘silos’ in our company? (the answer is always yes to that one!)

 

What is very surprising is how little analysis and research is done into how our teams operate.  One way to gain a better understanding on these questions is Organisational Network Analysis (ONA).  One method is for employees to complete quick pulse surveys which combine “ME” questions (My opinions count) and “WE” questions (I would like to appreciate the following individuals for helping me in my day-to-day work).  Open feedback questions are also interspersed to understand sentiment and key issues.

The end result is a visual representation of your team dynamics - the example in the image above, is an ONA diagram from OWEN Analytics and was used to understand team dynamics in a pharmaceutical organisation.

In my article on the use of wearables and emerging technologies in the workplace, I highlighted that The Quantified Workplace will be introduced, but only at the speed of employee trust.  Looking at relationship patterns might also give insights into understanding trust.

This type of approach throws up some interesting insights.

Research by Rob Cross, a leading researcher in ONA, found that highly connected people are among the least engaged in a company. So your most valued staff, those go-to people, are often hidden, underappreciated and sometimes over-worked.

Mark Bolino of the University of Oklahoma points to a hidden cost of collaboration. Some employees are such enthusiastic collaborators that they are asked to weigh in on every issue. But it does not take long for top collaborators to become bottlenecks: nothing happens until they have had their say—and they have their say on lots of subjects that are outside their competence.

In most cases, 20% to 35% of value-added collaborations come from only 3% to 5% of employees according to research by Rob Cross, Reb Rebele and Adam M.Grant, covered in their article in Harvard Business Review, “Collaborative Overload”.

If we go back to the questions on what causes collaboration, effective teams and higher productivity, then ONA can play a big part in helping us understand what is going on in our organisations. 

Our people management practices are rapidly changing as we move to a world with collaborative teams working with different employment terms in different countries. ONA is a technique that people analysts can add to their tool-kit and help us to uncover the hidden dynamics of team effectiveness rather than the obsession with individual achievements. 

By being able to visualise teams relationships we can begin to build a strong foundation for organisations of the future based on a deeper understanding of effective teams. I am looking forward to sharing more case-studies and success stories at PA World over the coming years.  

(This was a guest article on the Tucana Blog)

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How Will Blockchain Impact HR?

Blockchain Glass Bead Consulting

Of all the emerging technologies, blockchain is the least exciting as a technology, but potentially the most impactful on society.  Blockchain doesn’t converse with you, it won’t 3D print your house or cut out your kidney stones with precision while the surgeon has a cup of tea. In terms of technology, it is about as exciting as relational databases.

When you think of blockchain, you might think of Bitcoin.  Bitcoin is a cryptocurrency that requires a maths degree to buy and ownership of a laptop that never crashes. Yet Bitcoin is just one of many different cryptocurrencies that uses blockchain as its core technology.  And blockchain technology is also being used outside of financial services.

What Is Blockchain and what is it’s value?

Simply put, a blockchain is a decentralised database shared among a network of computers, all of which must approve an exchange before it can be recorded. Typically if we want to send someone some money, we would need a third party, like a bank to verify the exchange.  The advantage of blockchain is that it stores an indelible ledger of all previous transactions in a string of ‘blocks’, meaning we know who owns what and who can send what to whom.

Individuals and organisations can use blockchain to:

  • Exchange digital assets without friction – a central ledger is no longer required which is why there is so much excitement in financial services. Transactions between people can happen nearly instantly without any third party.
  • Execute smart contracts – documents can be stored electronically, and be verified as authentic. So we have unbreakable contracts.
  • Store digital records – you can have an electronic ID and all sorts of information associated with it, your verified electronic profile.

 

[caption id="attachment_4519" align="aligncenter" width="300"]How a blockchain works - FT

How a blockchain works - FT[/caption]

To understand more about how blockchain works I recommend this great TED talk from Don Tapscott, “How the blockchain is changing money and business.”

What are the real life uses of a blockchain?

In an era where trust has been eroded in our institutions, politicians and even fellow citizens, anything that can strengthen trust should be viewed positively.  In my article, The Quantified Workplace: Technology vs Trust, I commented that potentially intrusive technology will be introduced in the workplace, but only at the speed of employee trust.

Given its practical attributes of storing digital records, executing smart contracts and as an efficient exchange, there are many real-life uses and experiments. This ranges from fixing broken business models e.g. Intellectual property in music to the more personal, recapturing our identities, so the ‘virtual you’ is actually owned by you.

There are also examples of blockchain systems being developed to solve problems such as human trafficking, tracking blood diamonds and as a land register.

“Blockchains automate away at the centre. Instead of putting the taxi driver out of a job, blockchain puts Uber out of a job and lets the taxi drivers work with the customer.” Vitalik Buterin, founder of blockchain platform Ethereum

As Don and Alex Tapscott argue in their book, Blockchain Revolution, blockchain could be the great economic leveller – a tool to strip out the middlemen from our economy and reward the makers and doers who truly create value.    So there is definitely a group of political enthusiasts who see blockchain as transforming society.

What’s the potential impact of blockchain on HR and people management?

Given the practical attributes of blockchain promising to cut out middle-men and provide unbreakable contract, what might be the impact on people management, organisations and work?

In Japan blockchain technology is being developed to create a prototype resume authentication database for job hunters with the aim of increasing transparency and in turn address fraudulent credentials.

With a resume authentication database, the verification of official certificates and contracts, which have until now been typically done on paper, could be carried out using the blockchain database” said Osamu Yonetani, CTO of Recruit Technologies.

Imagine having all your employment related details associated with your electronic signature in one block :- security access, insurance, payroll, expenses, work performance, employment history, psychometrics etc.  The employment contracting process would effectively be redundant.  You could work almost immediately, with quick payment.  The role of the recruiter will not be needed, but that’s the least of the disruption.  This raises questions about the nature of the employment contract and the ‘job’ itself. Most of us will then be in the gig economy, enabled by transparent contract and payment mechanisms.

Chronobank.io, an Australian short-term work platform, is developing a Blockchain-based financial system for freelancers or contractors to obtain work and pay them in their own “labour-hour” token. They aim to disrupt the HR, finance and recruitment industries with their upcoming platform.  I spoke with Sergei Sergienko CEO ChronoBank, who told me “Our goal is to make a difference in the way people find work and get rewarded for their labour, doing it decentralised and without the involvement of traditional financial institutions.”  This is potentially transformative, and Sergei’s message to HR leaders was this change will happen, so find out more and work to develop this next wave for your organisation.

As Gary Hamel has said, “our management structures are not suited for a digital age”   In some cases, blockchain software will eliminate the need for many management functions.

Which brings us back to the original question, what’s the potential impact of blockchain on HR and people management?

Blockchain could fundamentally change how we manage people and HR, then the impact on HR is an irrelevant question if some of these predictions come true as we will have moved to very different economic models.

I am looking forward to seeing how this develops, and in our field, and maybe seeing some #disruptHR start-ups pitching blockchain solutions at future HR Tech World conferences.  Be great to hear from anyone out there developing blockchain models and technology in HR.

(This was a guest post on the HRN Blog)

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