In her book ‘The Life Changing Magic of Not Giving a F**k’, author Sarah Knight provides advice on how we can rid ourselves of unwanted obligations, shame and guilt, to free up time for the things that make us happy. After a chapter focused on looking at ‘things’ (like basketball or having a bikini body), readers are invited to look at ‘work’ – starting by listing “the things we may or may not give a f**k about” so they can be challenged one by one, and then managed accordingly. (Family and friends are dealt with in later chapters.)
Scribbling out a list of work tasks and applying the appropriate challenge to it – whether or not I really care – I realised that there is not a single item listed that I don’t care about – each task outlined has a clear point or purpose, and an impact I can directly trace back to customers. For example, when providing coaching I can sometimes actually literally see practitioners grow in confidence. And when helping people to apply tools to overcome issues and unlock potential in their processes the benefits are clear and real in terms of time, energy and money. These are meaningful things.
According to experts Catherine Bailey and Adrian Madden in their research for MIT Sloan, work that provides us with the opportunity to apply our skills and talents is classed as meaningful too, along with a sense of achievement and pride in a job well done, especially when things haven’t been easy and there have been challenges to overcome along the way.
Finding meaning in our work is not a new concept. Maslow started to develop his Hierarchy of Needs model in the 1940s and described ‘self actualisation’ as the need to fulfil one’s unique potentials. One of the traits of self actualising people is that they enjoy problem solving, and care about humanity and having a positive impact on people – self actualisers find meaning in what they do.
What can leaders to do help people find meaning in their work? It’s clearly a personal thing, so perhaps the role of leaders is to provide conditions that enable it and sustain it. They may not be able to directly provide it or guarantee it, but their actions can certainly diminish it! Leaders can help people in their teams to make connections between the work they do and the customer, if the link is not completely clear. They can also contribute recognition for a job well done, and provide opportunities for people to use their skills and realise all of their potential. They could easily demotivate people and strip away meaning from their work by removing these aspects. And returning to Maslow’s model, threatening or failing to provide people with the elements addressed in the lower levels of the Hierarchy of Needs, like safety, connections with the organisation’s mission and purpose, respect and recognition will impede our ability to find meaning in our work.
Some meaningful words on this subject from inspirational people:
“If your actions create a legacy that inspires others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, then, you are an excellent leader.” Dolly Parton
“Man: A being in search of meaning”. Plato
“If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking”. Steve Jobs
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