Have you ever felt “dead” at work? Going through the motions, rote processing, doing just enough to hit the numbers and meet the metrics rather than feeling energized, excited, or engaged at work? Daniel Cable, Pittsburgh native and professor of Organisational Behavior at London Business School, knows how you feel. Surprisingly though, Cable would not advise you to quit your job and find your dream job… at least, not immediately.
Discussions regarding employee engagement often center around what managers and leaders can do to engage their employees and keep them happy and satisfied at work. But, this is only one side of the equation – what can employees do for themselves? After all, every job loses its luster eventually. Below are two practical tips from Cable’s research for taking charge of your own engagement. (*Fist bump*)
Get Close to the “Customer”
Many of our jobs are more like a relay than a solo race. We may not have the benefit of seeing the end product or experiencing the joy of the end. Most of us (metaphorically speaking) pass the baton to another member of the organization long before the finish line; we are only one leg of the race.
When we do not see the full life cycle of our jobs, it is easy to miss the impact of our work. Perhaps we are continually answering the same customer questions, assembling the same part, attending the same meetings, running the same reports or analyses, having the same conversations, and so on. As Cable notes, we get stuck in a “rut of efficiency,” where we do only what we have to do to hit the mark. This can be disheartening, and may cause us to question the value of our work. We wonder, “What is the point of all this? Does it even matter?” These types of questions reflect the early signs of burnout.
Cable suggests that, in order to avoid this slippery slope of meaninglessness, we should dig deep by asking ourselves a few key questions:
What is the purpose of my job (or this project)?
Who am I affecting when I do this well? What happens if I don’t do this well?
These questions require us to do two things. First, they require us to connect our jobs with a purpose. The purpose of our jobs is not the outcome of various individual tasks (i.e., the end-product or result) – it is much bigger than that. Purpose implicates the “why” behind our job. It is the greater good of what we do, if you will. Every job has a specific, valuable purpose, even jobs that seem small. Think about it this way – if your job did not matter, it would not exist.
Second, these questions connect us with the person on the other side of our labor. Whether an external customer or colleague, our work always impacts someone else. “Personalizing” the purpose of our job refreshes our perspective and we can begin to appreciate the meaning behind our efforts.
Learn How to Job Craft
Is there a particular aspect of your job that you enjoy, that you do well, and that, even when not required, you tend to do more than what is asked of you? On the flip side, is there a task that you do not enjoy and that you do not do well? Identifying these areas are the beginning of “job crafting.” When we uncover the unique strengths that we bring to the job that benefit the company and/or its customers, we can then partner with our supervisors to engage in those activities more often.
To discover your unique strengths on the job, Cable suggests taking a simply inventory:
What lights you up at work?
What puts you to sleep?
What do you do really well?
After reviewing these questions, we must build a business case for doing more of what we love and less of what we do not. But, how do we get our managers and leaders to go for it? Notably, Cable reminds us that job crafting is not about eliminating all the boring, difficult, or unpleasant aspects of our jobs. Rather, it should be rooted in the positive and meaningful impact we expect to have on the organization’s products and services. With that as our starting point, the conversation becomes much easier. For example:
“I would like to invest this skill/approach in a way that positively impacts quality [or: customer satisfaction, time to fill, production rate, safety]. How can I deliver more for you, using these skills/approaches [aka, strengths]?”
(Note to any leaders reading this post: This is a great exercise that you can encourage your team to complete – individually, for others through 360-type evaluations, or as part of a group effort to discover the team’s complementary strengths and gaps. You can also read our CEO's number one tip to empower and engage your employees.)
As you take charge of your own engagement at work, Cable offers one bit of cautionary advice: be prepared to learn from your mistakes. When you start job crafting and trying out new ideas, even if you are playing to your strengths, you may fail. However, through this failure, you (and your company) can grow. You may discover that you need more training or resources to be successful. Or, perhaps you learn that next time it would better to simulate the new approach before “going live” – putting it in the proverbial sandbox, if you will.
In any case, rest assured that allowing employees to learn from failure is a healthy thing for organizations. When employees and organizations stop innovating and stop failing, they die. Read more about Daniel Cable’s research and wisdom in his book, Alive at Work: The Neuroscience of Helping Your People Love What They Do.