Meaningfulness, pt 2: Higher Purpose: Buzzword or Basic Need?

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I hope you all had a meaningful week! If you did, it could be because you felt you were working for a higher good. Or, as we shall see, it could be for a number of other reasons. Today’s topic, in our quest to clarify the concept of meaningfulness, is higher purpose.

In popular reports, the terms meaningfulness and purpose tend to be used interchangeably. However, in order to gain some clarity, it is worthwhile distinguishing them. As I mentioned last time, meaningfulness is a much broader concept, defined in research as the amount of signficance that work creates for a person (Ashforth & Pratt, 2003). Meaningfulness is the general sense that work is worthwhile. Purpose is the more specific feeling that your work is gearing towards goals and values that go beyond yourself. Purpose, Rosso et al. (2010) point out, is actually only one of several different ways in which work can be made meaningful (others include self-efficacy, the sense of belonging, and authenticity).

Even though purpose is not the only way of deriving meaning from work, it is certainly a very good way. Thinkers from Dalai Lama to Viktor Frankl have emphasized the innate human need to work towards a purpose, and research has shown that employees who perceive that their work moves them closer to a larger goal perceive work as more meaningful (Bunderson & Thompson, 2009; Davidson & Caddell, 1994). When people feel that their work is contributing to society or one’s community, they derive more meaning from work (Grant, 2008; Wrzesnievski et al., 2003). This sense of meaningfulness, in turn, is quite strongly related to outcomes such as engagement, work adjustment, well-being, and (negatively) exhaustion (Fairlie, 2011).

So we have established that a higher purpose is a good thing. The next question is: Has this higher purpose become more important to employees? Popular discourse is certainly implying it. Millennials, we hear, constitute the most purpose-driven generation yet. They want their work to contribute to society. So what does research has to say on this issue?

First of all, there is very little evidence to suggest that Millennials would be more focused on higher purpose than their older colleagues. So-called altruistic motives – the desire to help others through one’s work – have remained stable for basically the entire post-war period (Cogin, 2012; Hansen & Leuty, 2012; Parry & Urwin, 2011; Wray-Lake et al., 2011). It is quite telling to look at the study of Twenge et al. (2010), for example. They reviewed high school seniors’ ratings of what matters in a job from 1976 through 2006. One of the items asked the seniors to rate the importance of having “a job that is worthwhile to society”. The importance placed on this did not change at all over this period (well, it marginally decreased if we are to be strict).

What has changed in recent years, however, is popular discourse around higher purpose. Not least, the tech- and startup world has fervently proclaimed the importance of higher purpose – even though it is sometimes less than clear what the purpose really is. The way we talk about things tends to create self-fulfilling prophecies, and this case is no exception. Therefore, it is not surprising that Kuron et al. (2015) found that the perception of a socially responsible culture was important in order to attract job candidates – especially those that were straight out of school – but less useful for retaining them. The cynical interpretation of that result is that “higher purpose” has become a marketing tool. The more optimistic one is that it has become a hygiene factor: To even be considered as an employer among young attractive talents, you may have to display what good you are doing for society.

In sum, it would appear that the quest for a higher purpose in work is eternal, rather than increasing. But then why is there such an intense discourse around higher purpose right now? And why does it seem as though it has gotten more important? One probable explanation is that within many knowledge-intensive settings, we have a buyer’s market at the moment. The right talent is in short supply, which means that people with the right education and skills can pick and choose among jobs. Faced with a selection of five attractive opportunities, what do you do? You move up the hierarchy of needs. You do not have to make your choice based on pay or location, so you can afford to make it based on a factor such as higher purpose. Case in point: In a large-scale study performed recently by companies LinkedIn and Imperative, Sweden with its buzzing economy came out as the number-one purpose-driven country. 53 percent of the respondents stated that they work for purpose rather than money or status.

To some extent, then, the discourse of higher purpose might be a product of talent shortage and economic boom. Today’s professionals probably have about the same drive for purpose as yesterday’s, but it becomes more visible because they can afford to focus on it. What happens at a future downturn is yet to be seen. What we can know for sure, however, is that purpose is indeed a powerful way of motivating people, at least when you are sure you can pay the groceries.

 

Photo: https://www.flickr.com/photos/57973238@N03/

 

Summer Is Here, and so Are Leisure Values

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With Midsummer right behind the corner, Sweden is officially entering into summer mode. This also means that the blog will make a brief hiatus to grant the author some long-anticipated vacation, and we will be back on track again in August. Before we all go kicking back in the nearest hammock, however, I thought we would end with a closer look at a trend that has a clear relationship with vacation: Namely, the increasing importance of leisure values in working life.

People are often talking about differences between generations in the workplace, not least with reference to the Millennials. Readers with good memory might remember from earlier blog posts that differences are not all that overwhelming. But there is one trend that really stands out as clear, and that is the increasing importance placed on leisure values – i.e., the extent to which you desire free time, vacation, and the possibility to combine work with other life domains.

This craving did not arrive with the Millennials, though. If you look at the well-made, longitudinal research studies that exist, you are struck by how the importance of leisure time has steadily increased since the 1950s. Over consecutive generations, people are placing ever more focus on vacation, the ability to take time for family and hobbies, as well as flexible working arrangements (e.g. Smola & Sutton, 2002Twenge et al., 2010; Wray-Lake et al., 2011). And this begins long before people have children, implying that it is not just about work-family balance. We seem to be dealing with an expression of a very broad mega-trend in society, and the prime suspect is individualization (Lyons & Kuron, 2014): Our increased focus on self-actualization and self-development.

As I have argued before, companies that are stressed about not adapting quickly enough to “the new generation” should be less concerned about Millennials being vastly different than older cohorts (they are not), and more focused on the long-term trends in what we really want from work. And leisure values stand out as one of the clearest. Really, you can think of this trend as taking at least three different expressions, all of which companies will need to consider:

  1. A desire to have time for a life outside of work. People increasingly want their jobs to accommodate their private lives. For instance, with every generation, there is a lower willingness to work overtime, a higher demand for vacation, and an increased focus on hobbies and personal interests. For quite some time, we have seen companies accommodating this by allowing flexible work hours and to a lower extent telecommuting. A current example of how powerful this can be as an employer branding strategy is Spotify’s export of Swedish parental leave.
  2. Wanting work to be fun. Leisure values are not only about hobbies and family time; they have also started to taint the way we view work itself. Put simply, we increasingly want work to be fun (Schullery, 2013). This can entail having access to non-work activities on company premises, such as sports facilities and nice cafeterias. But it can also be about creating an informal and open atmosphere where people feel at ease trying out new ideas – for instance, world-renowned design agency Ideo is famous for encouraging teams to make work as play-like as possible, in order to get creative ideas going.
  3. An expectation not having to separate the two spheres. There is a lot of debate going on right now about whether the break-up of boundaries between work and outside life really is healthy. One thing we can say for sure, however, is that people increasingly ask for the possibility to flexibly go back and forth between the two (Twenge et al., 2010). For instance, having to ask permission to go to the hairdresser or the dentist during work hours is increasingly perceived as old-fashioned, at least in conventional office jobs. Another example is the possibility to take a course out of personal interest, which may or may not become relevant to your work later on.

As stated above, the trend of increasing leisure values is pervasive and shows no sign of plateauing. Hence, it is a good idea to put the question of how to cater for it on your organization’s talent management agenda. After our own leisure values have materialized in the shape of some well-deserved vacation, that is.

Have a great summer!

PS. Do you have ideas or requests for what you would like to read about in the fall? Please drop me an email at asplundkajsa@gmail.com – all input is warmly welcomed!

 

Photo: https://www.flickr.com/photos/malintiman/

Engagement, pt 4: Managing for Engagement

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Long overdue, we are finally back to the topic of work engagement – and the final part of the series. During the spring, we have covered the nature of the phenomenon, its measurement, and the three broad states that seem to fuel engagement. Now, we are going to be even more concrete. How do you increase engagement among your employees?

Actually, you might object to the saying “increase employees’ engagement”, on at least two grounds. First, as we have learned, engagement is an inner, motivational state, and as such it cannot be increased in a direct way by organizations. What we can do is to create the best possible preconditions and hope they will translate into engagement. Second, when managers and HR say they want to “increase employees’ engagement”, it sounds a bit like they are expecting a free lunch. Just make everyone more engaged, and business will run even better. However, it is far from that simple.

The fact is; engagement requires quite a lot in terms of leadership and management, far beyond the addition of some more feedback or training offers. Remember the definition: Engaged employees bring their head, hands, and heart to work. They care deeply about the result and are highly energetic. This type of employee is prepared to work hard, but is also sensitive to some of the practices and structures that still often prevail in conventional organizations. That is; if you want engaged employees, you will have to be prepared to provide a management- and leadership style that will maintain this engagement. Here are some of the factors that research has found to be crucial:

  • Reduce all unnecessary bureaucracy. Sparking and maintaining work engagement in an environment characterized by a lot of rigid procedures and badly designed processes is close to impossible. Of course, the degree of structure and rules that is “too much” varies a lot from setting to setting, but the general rule of keeping bureaucracy down applies in most cases (Delaney & Royal, 2017).
  • Increase decision latitude. Ever wondered why entrepreneurs often score the highest of all groups on work engagement? One vital factor is their ability – and responsibility – to make all the important decisions for their work. Even though a hired employee can seldom be given that immense freedom, increasing their mandate to act is usually a strong recipe for engagement (Frese, 2009). However, this requires that the competence to make those decisions is in place – otherwise there is risk of unhealthy stress instead (Crawford et al., 2010).
  •  Encourage own initiatives – for real. This often-stated advice seems simple in theory, but often turns out tricky in reality. Many of the talents I meet as part of my research lament the fact that their employer keeps calling for own ideas, but when those are brought to the manager, they get shot down. The reason for this is usually the tension between the creativity of engaged employees and middle managers’ need for control and structure. This is sometimes the making of individual managers, but might just as well be a product of how the company is organized. Are there structural or incentives-based obstacles to letting employees try their own ways and ideas? Are there a lot of administrative hassles involved in trying something out (Crawford et al., 2010)? In that case, real engagement might prove difficult to attain.
  • Be prepared to manage emotion. As repeatedly stated in this series; an engaged employee brings their whole person to work. When you are emotionally invested in what you do, it is only natural that feelings will come to show (Saks & Gruman, 2014). In organizations with more of a bureaucratic tradition, this is not always expected, and managers may not be equipped to handle it. This is not to say that managers should act as therapists (that never ends well), but there needs to be a toolbox for how to handle the conflicts, frustration, sadness, and performance anxiety that may result from caring deeply about your work.

There, some central aspects of managing for engagement, illustrating that engagement is indeed no free lunch – for many organizations, it requires a re-orientation of management practices towards more employee autonomy, radical encouragement of new ideas, less strict managerial control, and a leadership that can cater also for emotions in the workplace. Bottom line: Engagement can potentially bring substantial gains to the organization, but they require organizations to do their homework management-wise.

 

Photo: https://www.flickr.com/photos/absintheboy/

SIOP Impressions: 3 Take-Aways From The World’s Biggest Conference for Work Psychology

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This week, we’ll make a brief pause in the series on work engagement, and instead take a trip to sunny Florida. A couple of weeks ago, I had the great pleasure of participating in the annual SIOP conference in Orlando. SIOP is short for Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology, and makes up the world’s foremost association within this field. Each year, they organize a large conference with thousands of participants, attracting both top I/O psychology researchers and the most knowledgeable, progressive HR professionals.

The primary reason for my trip was to present a research paper on talent management and identity, which was great fun. What was even greater, however, was to take part of all the groundbreaking research and practices that were presented by others. After three full days, my head was crammed with all the interesting stuff that goes on around topics like engagement, selection, teams, performance ratings, and not least talent management. Since SIOP really is a hotspot for cutting-edge I/O psychology and HR, listening in to the discussions here is a good way of getting some hints about where we’re heading. So what are the hot topics? I thought I’d share three of my broad impressions from this work psychology Mecca.

  • Teams is where the action is. The key takeaway from this year’s SIOP? That the sexiest research in our field right now is done in the area of teams. Nowhere are there more cool projects, interesting collaborations, and ground-breaking methods. For instance, did you know that NASA is financing a number of skilled researchers to help them understand how to build the most well-functioning teams for space travels? And forget about surveys and simple observation – these researchers are using linguistic analysis, accelerometers, biodata, network analysis, simulations in extreme environments, and a host of other innovative methods to better understand team dynamics. No doubt, the most ground-breaking findings within our field during the coming decade will come in the area of teams.
  • Engagement is embraced in its versatility. Workshops and seminars on engagement drew significant audience all through – hardly surprising. What is new, however, is that both researchers and skilled consultants are starting to let go of the assumption that there is one golden-standard way of measuring engagement and its drivers. Apparently, big data analyses are starting to show that engagement takes very different expressions in different settings, which might necessitate more flexible measurement. And equally important; the drivers of engagement can actually vary a lot from organization to organization. Sometimes supervisor support is most important, sometimes it’s person-job fit, sometimes it’s something else. Repeatedly, the advice to HR practitioners was: Play around. Try different metrics and items, and see which ones do the trick in your organization. Clearly a new development from a discipline that is usually strict on standardization.
  • Even the Americans are questioning the talent concept. The fact that us Northerners have our issues with concepts like “A players” and “Future Stars” is no news, and no surprise. But now the day has come when even the Americans – scientists and practitioners alike – are starting to wonder if the differentiation of employees into different ranks really is the right way to go. In a crowded debate session, Alan Colquitt of Eli Lilly together with well-known professor Paul Sackett went head to head with the concept of high potentials. They argued that if the future is all about collaboration, team creativity, and boundary-crossing, we must stop focusing so much on singling out a small elite. The speakers were met with protest, to be sure – but just the fact that this debate is now being held at SIOP and draws vast interest says something about where we’re heading.

That’s it for now – of course, we will continue looking into these developments within I/O psychology and HR here on the blog. Chances are, we’re in for an exciting future.

Skills for the Digital Age: Let’s Hear It for the Good Old T Profile

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What kinds of skills and competencies are needed for the digital age? LinkedIn, industry press, and popular books abound with lists of things like “flexible thinking”, “learning agility”, and, of course, “tech savviness”. If you want to get beyond the usual catchphrases, however, it helps to try to discern some of the broader strokes in how work life is actually changing. One person who is great at doing so is Paul Evans, professor in organizational behavior at INSEAD Business School. When I listened to him at a talent management research conference in Copenhagen this past autumn, he brought up the following two megatrends:

  • The modularization of work. To an ever larger extent, organizations are decomposing intricate work processes into its constituent parts. This is primarily driven by the technological development: Parts of the chain might be taken over by algorighms or robots, which is why it makes more sense to disintegrate heavy parcels of work into smaller pieces. According to Evans, this is also visible in the actual structure of companies: In recent years, large companies have increasingly adopted multidimensional matrix organizations, which were once considered too c0mplex but are now made possible by digitalization. This has two main implications for employees: They end up having several bosses, and they are required to develop effective horizontal collaborations in order to perform well.
  • The diminishing role of authority. In this new type of complex organization, said Evans, it is seldom effective to rely on heavy reporting or managers telling people what to do. Especially when the primary product is knowledge and information, companies have a lot more to gain from adopting flat structures of peer production. We already see this in the tech sector with its self-organizing teams. What is important to note, however, is that this puts new demands on team members: First, the group as a whole needs to have enough knowledge to solve very complex problems on their own. Second, when there is little or no managerial steering, members need to be able to instead organize themselves according to social signals – meaning that social skills are more important than ever.

So, what does this mean for the skill set needed by tomorrow’s employees? Evans and his INSEAD colleague Eduardo Rodriguez-Montemayor develop their thinking around this in the report Global Talent Competitiveness Index 2017, which I have previously referred to. According to them, one could talk of a talent paradox: On the one hand, talent development is not specialized enough. Many employees lack the real edge that would make them hihgly attractive on the job market and could enable them to feed into cutting-edge knowledge work. But on the other hand, talent development is neither broad enough: People still work in clearly delimited silos and are not afforded the breadth required for effective collaboration.

In other words, in our “age of dualities”, as the authors write, there is no room for “either or”: People need to have deep, specialized skills and broad collaborative abilities. Perhaps surprisingly, a model of competency that is more than 30 years old turns out to summarize this very well: The T model, whose basic premise is that a well-rounded knowledge worker needs to have deep expertise in one area (the vertical bar of the T), in order to be able to really contribute to a creative process, but also broad collaborative skills and an ability to understand and communicate with people from other functions and backgrounds (the horizontal bar). The same idea was actually picked up by the European Commission’s Political Strategy Center in their report series EPSC Stategic Notes (no. 13, 2016). There, it was further pointed out that today’s education system falls short when it comes to helping the next generation’s talent to develop this kind of profile. Much more focus will have to be put on the application of knowledge and advanced collaboration skills, while still keeping very high standards when it comes to subject knowledge.

My guess is that we will see much more of T-shaped thinking in organizations’ talent management in the years to come, simply because it rhymes very well with the demands created by the digitalized knowledge economy. Who said an old model couldn’t be prophetic?

 

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