Book Explores the Meaning of Work

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As the economy eases out of the recession, employees who weathered the long months of layoffs and cutbacks face the challenge of overcoming the attendant "psychological recession" that many have fallen into, say the authors of a new book about the importance of finding meaning in work.

"Fear is sort of inimical to meaning and when we are afraid we get locked down in survival mode and it's hard to do the stepping back and seeing that what we do has meaning," said Wendy Ulrich, who with her husband Dave Ulrich wrote "The Why of Work: How Great Leaders Build Abundant Organizations That Win," which was just published by McGraw Hill.

Survival mode leads to "primal thinking" and "that's not the part of our brain that we use when we're trying to understand things from a meaning perspective," she said in a recent phone interview. "Part of it is recognizing this is a scary time that has knocked out people's sense of security and what brings meaning to their lives." Cutbacks and layoffs lead to longer work hours and coupled with other ripple effects of the recession "can be quite threatening to our sense of meaning," she added.

Now is the time, though, for many employees and company leaders to cultivate a sense of survival: "We outran the bear. Let's stop and take a breath and say, 'Where do we regroup and invest in that higher-level thinking,'" she said. Even in situations where there is still the danger of layoffs (Hewlett-Packard being a prime recent IT example) and other reorganization that will negatively affect workers, it's exhausting to keep having the sense of running from danger. "You've got to stop," she advised.

Wendy Ulrich has been a psychologist for more than 20 years and founded the Sixteen Stones Center for Growth in Utah, which specializes in seminar-retreats focused on relationships, creating what is called an "abundant life," which involves discovering meaning, creativity and purpose even in times that are difficult for whatever reason. Dave Ulrich is an expert in building organization capabilities such as systems, processes and cultures. He also coaches leaders of organizations with the aim of helping them to unlock the ability of employees to find meaning in their work, no matter what jobs they do. He is a professor at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. They have studied companies and workers, talked to thousands of employees, customers and C-level executives at a range of businesses to arrive at the "why" of work, the ways in which people find and maintain meaning in their jobs.

With those backgrounds, their book is a mix of psychology, the latest thinking in business management and related processes, and areas such as motivational techniques. It includes checklists and questionnaires meant to help employees at all manner of companies create action plans for how to develop and maintain a sense of meaning and purpose in their work. The techniques could be used by leaders, including those who head IT departments, to help their employees and by the employees to help themselves. The idea is that companies, no matter their size, that foster a sense of meaning in the work of employees will become what the Ulriches call "abundant organizations," with workers who are motivated and productive.

As the book describes it: "An abundant organization is a work setting in which individuals coordinate their aspirations and action to create meaning for themselves, value for stakeholders, and hope for humanity at large. An abundant organization is one that has enough and to spare of the things that matter most: creativity, hope, resilience, determination, resourcefulness, and leadership."

Far from being a touchy-feely endeavor, the end goal is profit. "Making meaning makes money," said Dave Ulrich in the same interview with his wife. "We've talked about this [in this interview] in the sense of affect and emotion and meaning, but let's not run away from this," he added, referring to profit as the objective. "It's not just a social agenda. Companies need to make money and making meaning will make you make money."

One possible approach that has proved successful is for company leaders to search out lower-level employees who love what they do and find meaning in their jobs and to talk to them about what keeps them motivated and pumped up, and then to aim to replicate that throughout the corporate structure. That sort of "positivism" can be taught, Dave said. "Throughout companies at all levels there are people who have those skills and it is a skill -- they've learned from parents and mentors how to find meaning in all kinds of work. This is not something that comes automatically. It's a skill that can be learned to find meaning."

Employees who lack that sort of attitude may tend to think that "work is work," Wendy said. "Some of us have not been trained how to find value and purpose in our work. We've been trained to think of work as something you just suck it up and have to do. They haven't had people who are good role models for saying, 'Isn't this fascinating,'" she said.

Often, unmotivated employees may have difficult personal lives. Some have such bad attitudes as to become "toxic employees" who can pollute organizations. "Boy, do I wish we could help those toxic employees find meaning in their work that they aren't getting in their homes," Dave said. "If work can be a positive place for those employees who feel personal toxicity and just live in a place of deficit thinking, maybe it can blend into other parts of their lives."

Some companies the Ulriches have studied do things like let employees bring dogs to work, provide gyms for workouts or any number of other things that would seem to promote happiness among employees. But that sort of thing is "hit or miss" because not everyone is made happy by the same things. And, besides, happiness isn't really the goal. "It's not just about being happy," Wendy said. "Sometimes people find meaning in the most difficult situations. It's about finding meaning in life, not how do you make them feel happy."

Figuring out how employees derive meaning from their work can be equally challenging (that's what the checklists, questionnaires and other tools of the book help with). As Wendy said: "It's sort of easy to assume that if you're president of the United States you've got a meaningful job, but if you're cleaning toilets you can't possibly have a meaningful job."

For some people, finding meaning in work comes with a good match of their work to their skills and interests. But that's not always possible in the sort of economic climate we're now in, even with upticks that suggest the recession is waning. "Different things work for different people on that score. For some, it's going after achievement -- how do I compete with myself to turn out more widgets than the next person -- for others, it's how do I connect with the people around me, for others it's personal learning. For some, it's how do I connect what I'm doing to the larger problems in the world."

Ultimately, it also may be understanding that finding meaning in our endeavors is as much a part of our human makeup as the survival mode or the flight-or-flight responses that kick in when we are frightened or in danger and that many employees have been coping with during the long months of the recession. "Humans have a unique ability to reflect on our own experiences," Wendy said. "It's not something that any other animal can do. We are by definition meaning-makers and make sense out of our lives. We are able to uniquely apply that to how we work."

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