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!



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?




A Deep-Dive Conversation on Talent Management


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!



Why Talent Pools Are Never Enough


How good are companies today at talent management? Well, most are rather good at talent identification. A majority of large companies now have rigorous processes aimed at finding high-potential employees. Many also have specific talent pools where these identified employees are listed.

Fewer companies, however, seem to have made the same investments when it comes to talent development. Arguably, this is quite problematic if you want ROI from your talent management. Imagine an FC Barcelona junior soccer scout vacuuming the youth academy for promising kids, and then doing nothing else than listing them as part of a talent pool. Identification without consecutive training is, plainly, quite a waste of resources.

Further, when companies do offer talent development, it tends to be in the shape of talent programs. That is; a time-limited, structured initiative, where chosen talents are gathered as a group to do various developmental activities. Common elements include trainings, rotations, mentoring, and project work (Stahl et al., 2012).

These programs, when well-thought through, can work really well (see e.g. Khoreva & van Zalk, 2016; Björkman et al., 2013). Nonetheless, there are two important points to be made: First, these initiatives only target a fraction of a company’s talents. Talent programs seldom have more than 30-50 spots, even in the largest corporations. Imagine a company with 10,000 employees. That’s 0,5 percent who get to enjoy a program. Second, these programs usually last about a year. In order to grow high-potential people into complex roles, development will have to continue well beyond that time frame.

Both of the above points actually lead us up the same alley: No talent development strategy can function without a substantial focus on on-the-job training (OJT), both for ex-program participants and for all the other talents in the company. This concept was put into focus by the consultancy CCL already back in the 1990s, but all too often it has been misunderstood. OJT, importantly, does not equal “being at work”. It is not about passing time at the office.

What research shows is that in order for OJT to be effective, it needs to be fashioned to get you out of your comfort zone. In other words, the job must feed you challenges that demand something beyond your usual repertoire. And as we also know from research, this can be quite stressful if not coupled with an intensified supply of support. That is; an attentive manager or mentor is usually necessary for these stretch assignments to work properly.

There is also another argument for OJT: Skilled employees want it. A number of studies have shown that good OJT initiatives reduce turnover intentions, and that the mechanism for this is an increased sense of support from the organization (e.g. Paré & Tremblay, 2007; Pattie, Benson & Baruch, 2006). There is also a positive relationship between perceived training comprehensiveness and commitment (Benson, 2006; Ehrhardt et al., 2011; Georellis & Lange, 2007).

If OJT is both effective and desired by talents – why is it not used more? Research is rather silent on this issue, but a qualified guess is that the number one reason is time-pressured middle managers. Organizations could certainly consider taking part of the budget from exclusive talent programs to give these key actors a bit more time to plan and execute high-quality OJT. Chances are, their talent development and –retention will benefit highly from it.