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/

 

The Meaning of Meaningfulness

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Back on track after the summer, and what better way to start the fall than by going at one of the foremost buzzwords of current people management? I am talking about meaningfulness. Ask any employer branding firm or HR person charged with talent attraction, and they will tell you that today’s talents are increasingly demanding meaning, and its cousin purpose, from their work. For instance, Swedish employer branding firm Universum proclaimed last year; “students demand a higher purpose”. Young talents today, their report stated, crave the ability to make a difference, both at work and in society. Pwc, in their Millennials at work report 2016, concluded that “millennials want their work to have purpose” – 73 percent agreed that one of their main drivers at work would be making an impact on society. Outlets such as Forbes, HBR, and Huffington Post have all repeatedly announced that any organization that wants to lure the picky Millennials will have to meet their request for meaningful work.

The hype is there, to be sure. But what is meaningfulness, really? Are we looking at a generation of benefactors who want to save the world during work hours? Or is it self-actualization and personal development that people are after? What is – pun intended – the meaning of meaningfulness? And what can organizations do to promote it? That is what we will spend the next few blog posts delving into.

As usual, in order to get behind the surface, we need to gear for a clear definition.  Research on the concept of meaningfulness is quite scattered, which is no surprise – since the term is so blurry. If we start out with the term meaning, it philosophers have, ever since the time of Aristotle, noted that this constitutes a basic human need. We want to feel like we are living for something. Thinkers such as Maslow (e.g. 1965) and Alderfer (1972) introduced the concept of meaning into the realm of work, arguing that the sense of meaningfulness was related to self-actualization.

Since then, a number of attempts have been made at jotting down what meaningfulness at work really entails. Most scholars have concluded that it is a rather broad state. It entails the sense that work is worthwhile, and that you as a person are feeling valuable, useful, and resourceful in your role (Fairlie, 2011Kahn, 1990). Purpose in this context is a narrower concept, usually defined as a sense of direction and intentionality (Ryff, 1989). Purpose, researchers argue, is one of several mechanisms (along with e.g. self-efficacy, authenticity, and belonging) through which the broader state of meaningfulness is achieved (Hansson, 2010; Rosso et al., 2010).

My hunch is thus that the term meaningfulness, as it is used today, tends to conflate several different aspects – each of which I intend to look closer at in this blog series:

  1. The (perhaps increasing) desire for work and one’s employer to have a higher purpose; an idea about a larger goal that will benefit society and/or other humans in one way or another,
  2. The (perhaps increasing) need for one’s job role and work tasks to be related clearly to the bigger picture; the overarching goal of the organization – the contrary of feeling like a cog in the wheel, and
  3. The (perhaps increasing) willingness for work to lead to self-actualization by means of being interesting, challenging, and stimulating.

The repeated “perhaps increasing” parenthesis above might be annoying, but it is there for a reason: With all these three topics, there are some aspects that really are eternal – but also some aspects that seem to be gaining in importance, or take new shape. We will start digging into the first one – higher purpose – in the next blog post. Let the meaningful season begin!

 

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

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/

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?

 

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

 

A Deep-Dive Conversation on Talent Management

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Earlier this winter, I was invited to do a filmed conversation on the state of talent management, hosted by HR consultancy firm Assessio‘s fenomenal general manager Christian Walén. The video is part of the new series Assessio Insights, which focuses on research- and data-driven approaches to people management and HRM.

Sitting down with Christian Walén, himself a brilliant psychologist and thought leader in the field of I/O psychology, to discuss my favorite topic was a lot of fun. For those of you who speak Swedish, you can find the whole conversation here. For English-speaking readers, you will find a translated, somewhat edited, excerpt below.

The State of Talent Management and the Talent Concept

Christian Walén (CW): Kajsa, I think we can agree that few concepts within strategic HRM have been so much in focus in recent years as talent management. What’s the state of talent management today?

Kajsa Asplund (KA): I would say that most companies have realized the importance of the issues, and most have also implemented a number of talent management practices, such as an annual talent review. Maybe, however, we are starting to see an increased questioning some of the basic assumptions of the “war for talent” perspective.

CW: So the hype is over? We’re approaching a new phase for talent management?

KA: I think so. We’re approaching a somewhat more mature stage, I would say.

CW: Very interesting. When talking about talent management it’s very easy to just toss the concept around. But if I understand your research correctly, there’s rather a number of different approaches and talent philosophies out there in different types of organizations?

KA: Yes. Pretty early on, we noticed that companies approach these issues in quite diverse ways. There is, of course, some kind of consensus on the notion that talent management entails the chain of attracting, identifying, developing, and retaining talented people. But the definitions of talent differ substantially between organizations, and seem to be very much related to organizational culture.

CW: You have shown that in some organizations, the view is that everyone is a talent, and should be granted the right conditions and the right leadership in order to grow. Whereas in other organizations, there is a more competitive perspective saying that only a few should really be invested in. Is that the most common dividing line, or are there others?

KA: I would say that is probably the most fundamental dimension – how common is talent? And a related issue is of course; can talent be cultivated, or is it rather fixed to begin with? An additional dimension where companies differ quite a lot is the relative focus that they put on hard-numbers performance, relative to what you could call input variables: Motivation, ambition, drive, etc. Basically, what people call potential.

Performance vs. Potential

CW: Speaking of potential – does performance at one level automatically lead to performance at the next one?

KA: Definitely not. A pretty large proportion of those that are promoted run into problems. Of course, if you haven’t performed at the lower level it is pretty unlikely that you will succeed at the next one, but that should rather be viewed as a hygiene factor. There are a number of additional factors that could cause you trouble once promoted. For instance, the new work is often of a completely different nature – the classical example being the move from an operational to a strategic role.

CW: Or going from a specialist role to managerial responsibilities.

KA: Definitely. In addition, the weaknesses that you may have been able to live with at lower levels tend to become more visible the more complex the role.

CW: What’s really interesting about what you’re describing is that even though we have come quite far in terms of structures and processes, we now need a larger focus on the individual – to analyze and support his or her growth even more. Is that in line with your findings?

KA: Absolutely. I think many companies have hit one or another fork in the road by implementing the standard version of talent management, and then realized that we need to look more at what research is saying – what we know about how people actually grow and develop, what constitutes high potential, and so on.

Developing Talents and the Risk of Talents Leaving

CW: My impression is that a lot of talent management happens at very junior levels. Then it fades out further up. Is that in line with your findings?

KA: Absolutely. Over the last decade, companies have become increasingly focused on their employer brands. Related to this, they have invested heavily in finding these young high-performers to be put in junior talent programs, which are supposed to work as catapults towards higher positions. But when it comes to building the complex competencies that will be necessary in order to take on more senior roles, investments have not been as large.

CW: So what does talent development usually look like in practice?

KA: The most common version is to put these individuals in either a talent program or a passive talent pool, which basically equals a list of people that should be considered first when new career opportunities open up.

CW: So it’s the VIP lane kind of idea?

KA: Yes. The problem is, when talent programs finish, that usually becomes a pretty abrupt interruption for the talent. And there you really have a critical turning point.

CW: What happens with these individuals at that moment?

KA: Well, in research we talk a lot about the psychological contract, which is basically the employee’s perception of what am I supposed to do and what can I expect in return from the organization. What happens after a talent nomination is that the organization has effectively re-negotiated the psychological contract. Quite simply, the employee now has higher expectations on what he or she will get in return from the organization. You have gotten this talent label and were granted access to a prestigious talent program. If then nothing happens within perhaps a year upon program completion, there is a big risk that you decide to leave.

CW: Is that what you’re seeing? That these high-achievers have a higher propensity to leave if there are not enough development opportunities?

KA: Absolutely. And then we’re back to: Identifying and developing junior talent – yes, quite a lot is being done there. But the question is; what is going to happen then? What is the journey supposed to look like after the first two years?

Criticisms and New Developments in Talent Management

CW: This is super interesting. What you’re doing here is to pinpoint a somewhat more sober and critical view on talent, which seems really wise. What other critique is being directed towards talent management and the way we work with these issues?

KA: One is the very basic question of whether we should at all use the term “talent”. I see increasingly more actors questioning this, because the word talent has a number of connotations. First of all, it is associated with fixed characteristics, which could lead appointed talents to start seeing themselves as crown princes or crown princesses that can passively expect rewards from the organization.

CW: You often refer to some very interesting studies showing that when real star performers switch jobs, they don’t necessarily keep on performing. What kind of fallacy does this reflect?

KA: It’s the fallacy of thinking that talent is completely independent of context. This emanates from the very individualistic American view on talent management. Now we are beginning to understand that there really is a very intricate interaction going on between the individual, the team, and the organization, where the fit might be better or worse. You may perform better together with a certain type of colleagues, within a certain type of culture, and so on. In short, a more nuanced picture is emerging.

CW: This really underlines the importance of working with teams and culture as part of your talent management.

KA: Absolutely. So far, talent management has been extremely focused on individuals – not necessarily in the sense of really understanding how individual engagement works, but in the sense that organizations have been focusing on finding certain individuals to lift up and put in new positions. Now, there is an increasing appreciation of the importance of integrating this with work on teams and culture.

A Guest Blog Post on Satisfaction vs. Engagement

Last week, I did a guest appearance on the startup company Clanbeat‘s blog, telling the rather fascinating story of how organizational psychologists turned their focus from employee satisfaction to employee engagement. This shift has turned out to be pivotal to our understanding of what actually drives performance and motivation at work. You can regard it as the background explanation of why engagement has become the talk of the day in management and HR.

You will find the blog post here!