Employee Engagement – “From Misery to Meaning at Work”




Our last Delfi Blog focused on the lack of meaning that many people experience in the job and identified three underlying sources of misery that interfere with our positive feelings about work:  anonymity, irrelevance and  ‘immeasurement’ .  Today we move to a more positive view on how effective leaders and employees can begin to journey from misery to meaning in our workplaces where we invest close to 2000 hours per year.

The misery of Anonymity stems from the basic human need to be understood and appreciated for our unique qualities by someone in a position of authority at work.  We all need to feel that others on our team know and understand us, and show some interest in our personal lives and well-being.

The most important source of this personal interest in our wellbeing as an employee is our direct supervisor or manager.  This source is much more important than the President or a manager two levels higher in the organization.  Taking an interest in an employee simply means getting to know them a little better – what makes them tick, what life is like outside of work, how the weekend went in their lives, what their family situation is.  For good reasons, we train leaders not to ask these questions during the hiring process, but we have forgotten to emphasize the importance of exploring these areas after hiring.  As a leader, this knowledge gives you different levels on which to interact with your employees on.  Leaders who take the time to get to know us as people, and not just as workers, are people that we see as caring and interested in our broader well-being.  Messages of interest and caring are the best antidotes for feelings of anonymity at work.

The misery of Irrelevance comes from our need to know that our job matters, to someone, …anyone.  Humans have a need to be needed.  It is very difficult to find lasting fulfillment in our work if we cannot see a connection between what we do at work, and the satisfaction of another person or group of people.  We need to know that we are helping others …even if it is just the boss ….. and not merely engaged in serving our own needs.

As employees, we need to honestly answer the question, “why am I here and who am I helping”.   Understanding our personal ability to make a difference in someone else’s day is a critical antidote to irrelevance.   By his actions, our waiter at a local restaurant this week clearly knew the answer.  He knew that it was his responsibility to ensure that we had a pleasant dining experience while in his care (our needs) and that we were happy enough with the experience to want to return again (his and the owners’ needs).  He knew that it was important to be honest when we asked about a certain appetizer – and he honestly answered that it was a little small for the price and steered us towards something else on the menu.  Yes – he bumped up his tip and we will go back.  Everyone in a job is serving someone as a customer – whether that be a paying client , another employee, a partner or stakeholder, or a supplier.  As employees, we need to look for the meaning in our work, however menial the job may be.  As leaders, we need to help our employees answer these questions – and recognize and thank them when the clarity of their answers is visible in how they serve their internal or external customers.  Appreciation of the impact of the work of employees or peers allows them to address this source of  misery and find the true meaning of their role.

The misery of ‘Immeasurement’  arises  from our personal need to be able to gauge our own progress and level of contribution in what we do,  without having to rely on the opinions or whims of another person giving us feedback.   We need to be able to assess how well we are doing on the job, without waiting for the occasional subjective comment or opinion of another.  Without a tangible means for personally assessing success or failure in what we do, our motivation eventually deteriorates as we see ourselves as unable to control our own fate – and our impact on others.

Sales people, hydro linesmen, and firefighters do not need to be told when they are doing a good job. The same goes for sports figures.  These are some of the jobs where there are natural or built-in feedback mechanisms that indicate when a job is well done.  There is a visible difference made towards  a desired outcome – there is a scoreboard.  We all like to keep score – even if it is only a personal “to-do” list that we can cross things off from.   It is our responsibility as individual employees to develop a mind set and a mechanism that enable us to know how well we are performing in our jobs.  As leaders, we need to acknowledge accomplishments and provide direct feedback  – but we are not always there – or not always that watchful.  So we will need to help employees find answers to the questions: “How will you know that you are doing a good job?”; “What will your personal success metrics be in this position ?”; “What should I be seeing when you are performing at your best?”.  Creating personal success metrics will help each of us give ourselves our own sources of personal recognition to supplement the feedback that we want to receive from others.

Three sources of Misery – three antidotes to help us move towards Meaning.  And trust me – life is much more pleasant for us and those around us if we can avoid the Misery and experience the Meaning in our work.  Happy journey.