I enjoyed reading a book with a difference. It was blended with success and spiritual flavours. The book in fact, invited me to relook the way I work. More importantly, I started asking the question ‘why do I work?’ I felt there is a lot relevance to Sri Lankan managers to find true meaning of their work. Today’s column is a sincere sharing of that serene experience.
Before you ask ‘why aren’t my employees working harder?’ ask yourself ‘why are my employees working?’ That is an essential question raised by the book titled ‘The Why of Work’ written by Prof. Dave Ulrich and his wife Wendy Ulrich.
According to them, the book evolved out of a conversation between a business professor/consultant (Dave) and a psychologist (Wendy), a conversation that has seasoned more than 10 years of morning walks along the river ways of Michigan, the neighbourhoods of Quebec, and the mountain trails of Utah.
"Dave and Wendy invite us to actively search the why and the how of meaning at work. The why refers to the human search for meaning that find its way into our organisations. The how gets us into the practicalities of how leaders facilitate that search personally and among their employees. This sets the base for an abundant organisation"
The way I saw it, such a conversation often leaves us points to ponder. As Dave and Wendy say, we contemplate the challenges faced by leaders who create the organisations we respectively encounter. Theirs are the challenges we face as well: finding the ‘why’ to sustain the ‘how’ of our daily living. They invite us to focus on a simple question: How do great leaders create, for themselves and others, a sense of abundance (meaning, purpose, hope, pleasure) that not only engages employees but delivers value to customers, investors, and communities?
The book beautifully blends leadership thoughts by a world-acclaimed leadership expert Dave Ulrich and deep psychological insights by a clinical psychologist Wendy Ulrich. They invite us to explore the “why” of work, which according to them, is the common driving force behind every successful organisation.
They further go on to say that once you learn how to harness this force, you can make meaning in the workplace – to bring out the best in everyone, create value for your employees, your customers, your company, and yourself and build hope for the future by building “the abundant organisation”.
Dave and Wendy invite us to actively search the why and the how of meaning at work. The why refers to the human search for meaning that find its way into our organisations. The how gets us into the practicalities of how leaders facilitate that search personally and among their employees. This sets the base for an abundant organisation.
As the authors observe, an abundant organisation is a work setting in which individuals coordinate their aspirations and actions to create meaning for themselves, value for stakeholders, and hope for humanity at large. It is where there is more than enough emphasis on the things that matter most: creativity, hope, resilience, determination, resourcefulness and leadership.
“We pay tribute to those who have helped us experience, think about, and attempt to understand and deliver meaning,” say Dave and Wendy. Their proposed step-by-step system combines proven professional techniques and sharp psychological insights to bring new meaning to our work and its impact on the world outside the workplace.
The book consists of revealing questionnaires, checklists, interviews, and case studies that are helpful to fully engage a team in challenging times, and to create a renewed sense of purpose, a sustainable source of commitment, and an environment that encourages and supports outstanding performance.
Results of abundant organisations
Apart from the spiritual significance, abundant organisations can produce exemplary results. Dave and Wendy provide some tangible examples:
- Over a 10-year period (1998 to 2008) “best companies to work for” have a 6.8% stock appreciation versus 1.0% for the average firm.
- Over a seven-year period, the most-admired firms in Fortune’s list of admired companies had doubled the market returns of competitors.
- The probability of an initial public offering (IPO; a new company) succeeding goes from 60 to 79% when the new company invests in its people.
- Sixty-one hospitals in the United Kingdom had a 7% decline in death rate when they invested in the well-being of their staff.
- A one-standard-deviation increase in high-performance work practices yields $27,044 increase in sales per employee and $3,814 increase in profit per employee.
It is interesting to ponder how the above facts are relevant to Sri Lankan organisations. Are we abundant enough? Soul-searching is required by many Sri Lankan business leaders, in altering their “scarcity” thinking towards abundance.
Meaning of work
“According to studies, we all work for the same thing – and it’s not just money. It’s meaning,” observe Dave and Wendy. Through our work, we seek a sense of purpose, contribution, connection, value, and hope. When we achieve meaning through our work, we succeed beyond our wildest dreams. In such a case, the following aspects could be the key outcomes:
- Increasing clarity about identity and signature strengths
- Gaining a sense of purpose to understand better what motivates us
- Managing work complexity through teamwork
- Replacing social isolation with positive work settings
- Identifying and responding to challenges that we care about and that engage us
- Growing from change by learning and becoming resilient
- Building sources of delight and civility into our work routines
The authors are of the view that the above outcomes would meaningfully overcome a set of negative consequences such as declining mental health, increased isolation, low commitment and higher hostility.
Seven questions that drive abundance
Dave and Wendy propose seven questions to help leaders drive the abundance agenda in creating the meaning of work. These questions apply to leaders at individual level, interpersonal level as well as institutional level. It can even spread to industry level. Let’s go through them one by one.
1. What am I known for? (Identity)
According to the authors, the field of positive psychology helps leaders answer this primary question. The traditional approach of psychology to depression, anxiety, and addiction disorders has been to develop models and techniques for fixing what is wrong with us. Positive psychology asks what makes people happy in the long run.
2. Where am I going?
(Purpose and motivation)
Social responsibility and environmental activism are fields that speak to the importance of addressing society’s biggest problems while investing in corporate citizenship. In order to manage scarce resources and rebuild organisation reputations, many leaders have begun to pay attention to a “triple bottom line” of people (values and reputation), profits (financial return), and planet (e.g., carbon footprint).
3. Whom do I travel with? (Relationships and teamwork)
While leaders must attend to teamwork in complex work settings, the concept of abundant organisations goes beyond teams. In essence, they produce and perform their tasks well to teams that engender a kind of passion that allows for creativity, focused energy, trusting connections, and mutual respect. High-performing teams come from high-relating people.
4. How do I build a positive work environment? (Effective work culture or setting)
As Dave and Wendy observe, leaders who engender positive work environments promote good communication, development opportunities, and pleasant physical facilities to ensure a positive culture at work. 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.
5. What challenges interest me? (Personalising and
The study of talent has evolved from a focus on employee competence (ability to do the work) to employee commitment (willingness to do the work). 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 organisation goals.
6. How do I respond to disposability and change? (Growth, learning, and resilience)
Research on personal resilience and learning organisations offers exciting insights into what helps people and institutions endure in the face of both suffering and setbacks. By studying what helps prisoners of war survive and thrive, how Navy Seals can be trained to stay calm under attack, and what abused children who become successful have in common, we get hints about how leaders encourage learning under conditions of stress and challenge.
7. What delights me?
(Civility and happiness)
The hostility rampant in modern life is itself under fire these days. The cry for tolerance demands that we outgrow our racial, religious, political, ethnic, and gender stereotypes. According to the authors, 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.
Dave and Wendy take us through a journey of discovering meaning of work. In essence, we need to ask the seven questions that drive abundance, understand the needs of our employees and customers, personalise the work to motivate employees, build and grow organisations in n any economy.
There aspects need to be made relevant to Sri Lanka. Our managers need a transition from ‘deficit-laden thinking’ to ‘abundance thinking and actions’. As Dave and Wendy sum up, “When you understand why we work, you know how to succeed”.
(Dr. Ajantha Dharmasiri works at the Postgraduate Institute of Management. He can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org or www.ajanthadharmasiri.info.)