The importance of building meaning into jobs

University of Michigan - Ross School of Business
Tags: talent management

The underlying cause of many problems in business today is a deficit of meaning, according to Dave Ulrich and Wendy Ulrich, authors of the new book The Why of Work (McGraw-Hill, 2010). Building meaning on the job "makes cents and sense," they say. Benefits go beyond improving employee morale. Building meaning creates an abundant organization characterized by creativity, resilience and resourcefulness.

"The research is clear that having more committed or motivated employees will lead to higher productivity, more committed customers, and more favorable investors," says Dave Ulrich, professor of business administration and director of the Human Resource Executive Program through Ross Executive Education. "Finding motivation is more than being happy with a job or being engaged and putting time into a job. Real motivation comes when the heart and soul are captured, which is why we focus on meaning and abundance in The Why of Work."

Co-author Wendy Ulrich is a clinical psychologist who holds an MBA degree. She and Dave had noticed similarities in their work over time: Dave saw business leaders develop great strategy and processes but not consider strongly enough the underlying impetus that gives work its meaning. Wendy, meanwhile, identified deficits of meaning in individuals. So the duo combined their expertise to develop a manual for leaders on how to build meaning on the job — both for themselves and their organizations. The book delivers targeted checklists, questionnaires, and other tools managers can use right away.

Research shows organizations that make this shift continually outperform their peers. But the authors warn that building meaning and abundance is easier said than done. In the following Q&A, Dave Ulrich discusses moving beyond platitudes and getting to the action.

How did your research and experience meld into the vision for this book — that the underlying cause of many problems in business today is a deficit of meaning?

Ulrich: The book took a long time to frame. We realized early on that there were a number of disciplines that touched on the topic we were interested in: positive psychology, the work of Positive Organizational Scholarship at Ross, demographics, social responsibility, engagement, change, learning, civility, etc. We wanted to integrate and synthesize existing literature. The national data converged around a crisis of meaning in many people's lives.

This book's main intended audience is leaders, not employees or even HR professionals. Why is that?

Ulrich: Leaders are the primary owners of the creation of meaning in an organization. HR professionals are the architects who build the systems to sustain it, and employees experience organizations. But leaders are owners of how organizations work and operate. Many great books have been written about how employees find personal purpose and how HR delivers value; we wanted to focus on leaders as meaning-makers.

If it's clear that taking these steps will result in better financial performance, customer satisfaction and, if you're a public company, shareholder value, why aren't more firms doing it?

Ulrich: Knowing and doing are very different things. Many of us know how to take care of ourselves (diet, nutrition, sleep, exercise), but we don't do it very well. When senior leaders finally understand that what happens inside a firm dramatically affects customers, investors, and communities outside, they begin to make investments of time and resources to build more abundant organizations.

You present seven key questions around themes like identity, purpose, and motivation designed to help leaders build meaningful and abundant organizations. How did you develop that specific framework?

Ulrich: We looked at the disciplines referenced above and worked for more than two years to cull the themes and key messages from them. My academic training is in taxonomy, where we try to find patterns in complexity. We used this orientation to derive these topics, questions, and action areas.

Should business leaders ask themselves these questions first before undertaking an organizational shift?

Ulrich: Ghandi said, "All change begins from within," so yes, leaders who experience abundance will be more able to create it in others.

On the question "What am I known for?" you outline a few ways to find strengths and capabilities of employees. How can a leader do that without then placing an employee in a slot they'll never leave, at least in the mind of that leader?

Ulrich: Having or finding one's strength is a predisposition, not a predestination. The research says that about 50 percent of who we are and what we do is predisposition, from heritage or DNA. The other half is learned through experience. Wise leaders see current strengths and future opportunities among talented employees. They give employees opportunities to apply strengths today while building competencies for the future.

How do you connect the strengths of your people and company with the needs of your customers and investors?

Ulrich: Start with customers: What do you want to be best known for? The answer frames an identity or firm brand. Turn that identity into behaviors for leaders — what we call a leadership brand — and employees. Employees whose strengths match the desired customer identity or brand will be more successful over time.

To ask, "Where am I going?" you suggest leaders first do some pretty deep self-reflection. How can people spark that process in themselves and their staff?

Ulrich: Insight can range along a continuum from deep to nonexistent. A leader doesn’t need years of therapy to get a sense of what drives or motivates him or her. We laid out four generic drivers: insight, achievement, affiliation, and empowerment. People can see themselves in each of these categories.

Fostering relationships within an organization can be challenging. How does a good leader walk the line between creating team chemistry and forcing people on each other?

Ulrich: Teams matter more than individual talent. We found in hockey, basketball, and soccer that the leading scorer is on the winning team between 15-20 percent of the time. Same in movies, with the best actor and actress also winning the best picture award about 15 percent of the time. Leaders pay attention to individual talent, but they also foster teamwork by helping develop a shared purpose, clear governance, affirming relationships, and the capacity to learn.

Building the positive environment seems like something the manager/leader would have a lot of control over, i.e., setting values and leading by example. Are you saying that this is rare?

Ulrich: Most of us can look at our careers and see work settings that were both positive and negative. We laid out 10 actions leaders can take to create a positive work environment. We hope this happens more often than not, but sometimes, either by inattention or inability, leaders fail to shape the desired work culture. A leader can be resilient in responding to change, but how does that person inspire resiliency in the staff, especially when things get rough?

Ulrich: As noted, first model resilience. Face failure, learn from it, and move on. Second, help others put failure into context and focus on the future, not the past. Resilience often is a state of mind, and when the mental image of mistakes is an opportunity to learn instead of an excuse to blame, leaders shape how others respond.

Do you think this growing lack of meaning in our work is because many have lost sight of the fact that organizations represent the collective talents, thoughts, emotions, etc., of the people who work there? If so, how did we lose sight of that, and how quickly do you think the business world can create more meaning in or at work?

Ulrich: If we could answer this question, we would be creating magic. But once people know the why, they are more likely to accept the what. This is why we called our book The Why of Work. We want people to think about why they are working and how work can be a setting for the universal search for meaning. When this happens, people are more likely to change. People have learned that through microlending that society can begin to get out of financial poverty. We hope that through finding meaning in work settings, we can begin to get out of emotional poverty.

Ulrich is co-faculty director of the Advanced Human Resource Executive Program, next offered by Ross Executive Education October 4-15, 2010. The two-week program is designed for senior HR executives and general managers seeking to use HR practices to deliver busines strategy. 

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