Finding the Why of WorkThe Why of Work by Dave and Wendy Ulrich is a timely and important book. It is about our search for meaning and how “leaders facilitate that search personally and among their employees.”
Importantly, they begin with a discussion of the seemingly inevitable issue of deficit thinking. “When employees lose what they have come to count on and expect—be it a person, an income, a position, or less concrete notions like security, identity, or direction—they are inclined to deficit thinking.” “Deficit thinking,” they write, “can lock us into a prison of our own making, a prison dominated by fear, isolation, disorientation, and competition for scarce resources.” We can’t eliminate the hardships, uncertainties and disruptions we sometimes face, but we can change our perspective—find a different meaning. That is where leaders come in.
If we focus attention on what we stand to gain from our crisis, not just what we stand to lose, abundance thinking can replace deficit thinking even when deficits are the rule of the day. Abundance looks to future opportunity more than past disappointments, promotes hope over despair, suggests change for the future rather than languishing in the past, and fosters the creation of new meaning where old meanings have broken down. Abundance does not imply that things come easily or quickly but that we can make meaning even in the midst of challenges we face.Leaders need to promote this meaning–making; create repositories of abundance where employees can “gain antidotes to some of the malaise, isolation and crises of meaning” they face.
Meaning is not found in events but in the way we interpret those events. This means we are not (or should not) be controlled by what is happening around us, but that we have to consciously work to determine what it means.
Dave and Wendy Ulrich have proposed seven questions—and devoted a chapter to each—to help leaders drive the abundance agenda—questions that help leaders make meaning, add value, create emotional energy, and foster hope while at work.
1. What Am I Known For? (Identity)
A sense of identity is fostered by a clear sense of who we are, what we believe in, and what we are good at. Our identity is grounded in how we instinctively use our skills in the service of our deepest values.
2. Where Am I Going? (Purpose and Motivation)
Abundance emerges from a clear sense of what we are trying to accomplish and why. Employees who can meet their personal goals at work remain motivated and engaged; those who can’t, go in a different direction, physically or emotionally.
3. Whom Do I Travel With? (Relationships and Teamwork)
Our sense of abundance is enhanced by meaningful relationships. High-performing teams come from high-relating people. When leaders help their organization “families” move beyond superficialities of getting along to struggle through conflict so that they can understand one another’s strengths and weakness, they can approach the kind of synergy that occurs in the best of human relationships. This means that leaders need to learn and model the skills of building good relationships at work.
4. How Do I Build a Positive Work Environment? (Effective Work Culture or Setting)
Abundance thrives on positive routines that help ground us in what matters most. Instead of building routines and patterns that encourage self-reflection, honest sharing, and the kind of consistency that brings people together, many of us build habits, addictions, and compulsive patterns that serve primarily to block out other people. Or, we build few routines at all, leaving us untethered in time and space and making us unpredictable to those who want to connect. Routines and patterns driven by our deepest values help us stay grounded in what matters most and available to those who matter most.
5. What Challenges Interest Me? (Personalizing and Contributing Work)
It’s hard to imagine abundance in the absence of challenge. Employees who are competent but not committed will not perform to their full potential. Commitment comes from building an employee value proposition that engages employees to use their discretionary energy to pursue organization goals. Commitment or engagement grows when we work in a company with a vision, have opportunities to learn and grow, do work that has an impact, receive fair pay for work done, work with people we like working with, and are offered flexibility about terms and conditions of work.
6. How Do I Respond to Disposability and Change? (Growth, Learning, and Resilience)
Abundance is less about getting things right and more about moving in the right direction. Unlike the assumption of disposability that governs so much of modern society, resilience and learning principles challenge us to “repair, reuse, and recycle” people, products, and programs rather than tossing them.
7. What Delights Me? (Civility and Happiness)
Abundance thrives on simple pleasures. The cry for tolerance demands that we outgrow our racial, religious, political, ethnic, and gender stereotypes. The cry for civility also calls upon us to outgrow our we-they, win-lose, right-wrong, blame-and-shame mentality. As we move away from hostility and blame toward problem-solving, listening, curiosity, and compassion, simple civility greases the skids. Delight often comes in small packages, and when money is tight it helps to know that small and simple pleasures spread over time have more impact on our sense of well-being than grand one-time gestures.
“Meaning does not ensure ease; it offers hope,” they write. “Abundance emerges from the growing conviction that what we are about ‘makes sense’—that it contributes to something larger than ourselves and that it is grounded in our deepest values. Such conviction does not forestall all problems, but it helps us confront problems with courage and integrity.”
Leaders at all levels can help (and have a responsibility to) make meaning happen.
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