Meaningfulness, pt 3: Why Meaning Is More Basic Than Purpose

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Today we return to the topic of meaningfulness; this enigmatic term that has become such a buzzword in today’s management discourse: As we often hear, “today’s young talents want work to be meaningful“. So far in this blog series, we have hopefully established that finding meaning in work is a fundamental human need, and not something that came along with the Millennials. We have also established that having a higher purpose with one’s work is one contributor to the sense of meaningfulness. It is, however, not the only one, and arguably not the most basic one. In fact, I would argue that, in the choice between two evils, it is actually more detrimental to your well-being to find work meaningless than purposeless. In order to show what I mean, we are therefore going to look at what might be the most fundamental factor in meaningfulness: The sense that one’s work makes a valuable contribution to the bigger picture.

We all want to feel like our work matters. But before we ask how it matters to saving the world, we ask how it matters to our more immediate work environment, and our organization. If I fill out yet another Excel sheet, will it be put to use somewhere? If I spend another half day writing a report, will it actually be read by someone? When people find that the answer to such questions is “no”, consequences are grim. Research has consistently shown that feeling like a cog in the wheel, whose work efforts go into a black hole, is related to burnout and strain (e.g., Demerouti et al., 2001; Timms, Graham, & Cottrell, 2007). Further, several scholars have pointed out that the sense that one’s work matters in the organization is a necessary condition for engagement (Chalofsky, 2010; Fairlie, 2011). Naturally, employees are very unlikely to engage in a task where they suspect their efforts will just go to waste (Shuck & Rose, 2013).

Here is a bold claim: The sense that one’s work matters to the employer is more basic than having a higher purpose. Imagine, for instance, that you are working for an NGO devoted to children’s education in developing countries. The higher purpose is there, to be sure. For the sake of the argument, let us also assume that you have a good salary and a nice physical work environment. However, your boss consistently charges you with tasks that you do not see the point in doing. Furthermore, the well-researched analyses that you produce seem to go unnoticed and inpire no further action by the organization. Pretty soon, you will start asking yourself: “Is this really meaningful?” In fact, research indicates that this scenario is a lot more harmful to your well-being than the reversed case, since it so clearly takes away from your everyday work enjoyment.

So, seeing how your work fits into the larger scheme of things – that your contribution matters – is a fundamental key to meaningfulness. The next question is: has the need for this “bigger picture” perspective increased recently? Looking at the research, the answer seems to be: No, but the propensity to actively ask for it probably has. As usual, it makes more sense to look at long-term trends than the latest buzz. Ever since the end of World War II, belief in authority has been on the fall in the Western world (Cogin, 2012). With rising education levels and a less hierarchical society, we get more inclined to asking “why”. Compared to the world of work of the 1950s, very few professionals would today be satisfied performing work tasks “because the boss said so”. Today, most of us are not afraid to pin our managers down to ask them what our work is for; what it leads to. Various consultants may claim that this is a characteristic of the Millennials, but in reality it is a characterstic of our time. Hence, it is affecting employees of all ages – and all organizations must accordingly make sure they let their members understand how their work contributes to the larger mission. That is the very hygiene factor of meaningfulness at work.

 

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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/

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.

 

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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.

Engagement, pt 3: the Three Hallmarks of Engaged Employees

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Welcome back to our series on engagement, where we are now to tackle the real crunch question: How is engagement promoted? As mentioned previously, there is quite some research showing that work engagement is related to important outcomes such as job performance, customer satisfaction, productivity, and decreased absenteeism (Crawford, LePine, & Rich, 2010; Macey et al., 2009; Rich, LePine, & Crawford, 2010; Shimazu et al., 2014). Thus, organizations have every reason to promote it among its employees.

Once more, it is worth going back to the original sources. William Kahn, the founding father of the engagement concept, in his 1990 study took it on himself to identify the factors that contribute to work engagement. In order to do so, he closely studied two very different organizations: A summer camp for adolescents, and a prestigious US architecture firm. Kahn used a combination of comprehensive observation, document analysis, written self-reflections, and in-depth interviewing in order to capture the conditions that made employees engage in, or disengage from, their work. Just to remind ourselves, Kahn’s definition of engagement entails bringing all different aspects of yourself into your work role. Disengagement, conversely, involves withdrawing from the role; performing it as a pre-defined script instead of using your personal resources.

After thorough analysis, Kahn arrived at three broad conditions that seemed to fuel engagement in both organizations: Psychological meaningfulness, psychological safety, and psychological availability (see illustration).

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Psychological meaningfulness, according to Kahn, entails a sense of being important at work: Doing something that matters and making a difference. In his study, he saw that this state was promoted by clear, challenging, and creative tasks, where the employee was able to operate with relatively high autonomy. It also helped if the work role was high-status.

Psychological safety, one can note, has recently attracted a lot of attention after Google identified it as the key feature of their most successful teams. But already in 1990, Kahn argued for its importance for engagement. This concept denotes the sense that it is OK to be yourself, express yourself, and experiment at work without fear of reprimands. To no surprise, Kahn saw that this state was promoted by warm and rewarding relationships with colleagues. Big status differences, on the other hand, tended to compromise psychological safety, for instance when the top dog was allowed to interrupt or correct lower-ranking colleagues.

Finally, psychological availability denotes feeling resourceful: A sense of having all the necessary resources to engage and perform the task at hand. Kahn saw that employees that felt both physically and mentally energized were much more likely to engage. Two factors that clearly withdrew from this was insecurity – e.g., not knowing your own status and mandate within the work setting – and interference from life outside of work, e.g. marital problems or worry about children.

For being a 27-year-old study, Kahn’s account of what creates engagement stands surprisingly strong. Not least, it points to a real key principle: The creation of engagement entails both individual and organizational resources. Companies can certainly promote engagement by implementing a number of practices and norms, but engagement also comes down to making sure employees have the personal resources to harness all this. In our fourth and final episode, we will go into how this can be done.

 

Photo: https://www.flickr.com/photos/130374826@N06/

Engagement, pt 2: How to Measure It

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So we are back to the topic of engagement, the motivational state that has garnered such immense interest in recent years. Last time, we concluded that engagement refers to a broad state that entails bringing your whole self to work; investing cognitive, physical, and emotional resources in the task at hand (Kahn, 1990). We also noted that there are many “engagement” measurements out there that do not abide to the established scientific definitions. Today, I thought we would take a closer look at the measurement issue, and try to arrive at some conclusions about how to do it right.

Interest in measuring work engagement has skyrocketed in the 2010s. This is partly due to the research showing engagement’s relatively big impact on outcomes like job performance and customer satisfaction (e.g. Crawford, LePine, & Rich, 2010). Another contributor is the wider development away from rigid, annual processes in HRM, leading to a questioning of the classical employee survey. This practice has been accused both of measuring the wrong things – e.g., the rather passive state of job satisfaction instead of active engagement – and for measuring them in the wrong way, first and foremost too seldom. These are both very valid points: Kahn noted already in 1990 that a core feature of engagement is its fluid nature. Later studies have confirmed that engagement indeed does fluctuate quite a lot over the course of days and weeks (e.g. Breevaart et al., 2013). Only measuring it once a year will thus yield a very incomplete picture.

The market has been quite fast at offering new solutions, e.g. in the form of so-called pulse surveys of engagement, where you ask some very brief questions on a daily, weekly, or bi-weekly basis. This is all very good, provided that the questions actually measure the right thing – remember that many “engagement” instruments actually measure something else. Most notably, it seems like many of the tools out there ask about job resources, such as supervisor support, development opportunities, and rewards. These might indeed contribute to engagement, but do not represent engagement per se. A tool that claims to measure engagement must ask about the employee’s mental state; preferably whether they feel that they are going at their work tasks with everything they have.

Besides the frequency of measurement and the importance of asking the right questions, there is a third measurement issue  that has to do with the type of data gathered. The absolutely dominant way of measuring engagement today is through self-report surveys. This is standard procedure, since we have long assumed that internal psychological states are too difficult to capture in any other way than by asking people themselves. However, digitalization has changed things. The ease of gathering large-scale data has opened up new opportunities to gather data on other indications of engagement.

Fuller (2014), for instance, suggested that employee surveys be complemented with direct measures of the concrete behaviors that engagement tends to result in. Some examples of measurements could be:

  • Network analysis looking at the number of connections created between different workgroups. Engaged employees tend to spend more time building meaningful relationships with people outside their immediate workgroup.
  • Number of employee-initiated initiatives currently active within the unit or organization, relative to the number of standardized processes.
  • Time spent on direct collaboration with clients, customers, or other important stakeholders.

These are just some examples of how digital data collection can open up for more creativity in engagement measurement. By adding data points like the ones listed above, we can actually start capturing the behavioral correlates of the inner state of engagement. After all, it is these expressions in action that organizations should be most interested in.

Now we have covered some key points when it comes to measuring engagement. Next time, we will move on to what research is saying about how to actually promote it.

 

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