Putting Meaning Into Work

This Labor Day, I read a New York Times Op Ed titled “Do Happier People Work Harder?” (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/04/opinion/sunday/do-happier-people-work-harder.html). The Op Ed was saddening but at the same time affirming—saddening because it painted an American workforce as largely disengaged and unhappy at work. The article mentioned Gallup as estimating the cost of America’s disengagement crisis at a staggering $300 billion in lost productivity annually. Whoa.

How can such a stark and unsettling reality also be affirming, you ask? Because, as a coach in the workplace I know that coaching, and the coaching process itself, directly addresses the critical activities and behavior that can boost engagement and turn around disengagement. Active listening and penetrating questioning are the foundations of coaching, as well as critical skills that managers should employ in developing their people. but there is much more to it.

The Times piece focused on the principal impact on people’s engagement: making progress in meaningful work. So what is it about coaching (beyond these foundational skills of listening and questioning that can help realize this goal?

First, people’s work has to be meaningful. This doesn’t mean everyone needs to be winning world peace or curing cancer. But it does mean that people need to understand how they contribute to the business as a whole. How does their work align with their team, department, and the business itself? How do their personal goals align to help the business meet its goals? There is no way an individual can answer this critical question if her manager isn’t communicating clearly and helping to set performance goals that support the business goals.

People also need the autonomy to weigh in and help shape their work. they need to leverage their own skills and know-how to make a meaningful contribution. An individual’s input in what and how things get done further invests them in the work. They take ownership. This is a manager’s opportunity to draw on people’s strengths and potential. How? Training, mentoring, and —yes—coaching, are interventions that can have great impact in upping someone’s game. These same measures can also help identify where there may be gaps in skills and knowledge that can be filled.

Now for the other half of the key to engagement at work—making progress. Again, the manager’s behavior in supporting his people will be critical to success here. The keys to progress?

A. Help identify and remove obstacles. Get rid of unnecessary meetings and busy work; simplify processes and and tasks; iron out any interpersonal issues on the team.

B. Facilitate. You can’t expect people to make progress if they’re stymied by the lack of necessary resources. In these days of tighter budgets, reduced staff, and more demands, this presents a big challenge. But you need to make every effort to provide key resources or problem-solve a way to work without them.

C. Offer feedback. It’s difficult for people to know if they are making progress if they’re operating in a vacuum. Constructive and timely feedback and offering support and recognition are essential to keeping people on track.

To summarize—these are critical actions a manager can take to help her people know they are making progress in work that has meaning to them and to the business:

  • Actively listen
  • Ask thought-provoking questions
  • Communicate clearly and regularly
  • Draw upon strengths and potential
  • Allow for some risk-taking, and leave  room for failure
  • Identify and remove obstacles
  • Recognize and provide needed resources
  • Offer feedback
  • Acknowledge effort and success

What do you think is critical to engagement at work?

If you found this post helpful, check out “About the Book” on this blog, and order yourself a copy of “What could happen if you do nothing?” A manager’s handbook for coaching conversations.