What is at the top of the list is for people is to feel like their work matters; that it counts for something. The companies who create meaning for the work keep their employees engaged and productive through the business downturns and budget cuts
I recently heard part of an interview with Dan Ariely about his new book, The Upside of Irrationality. I didn’t hear the whole interview, but he talked about a test he did to measure how important meaning was in one’s work. The test was to complete a task repeatedly, until you wanted to stop. The task was to build a Lego robot. When you completed it, you were asked if you would like to build another robot.
In one case, the robot you built was placed to the side so you could admire it while you built the next one. In the other case, if you said you’d like to build another, they dismantled the one you just built right in front of you, gave you back the pieces and said, “Okay, build another one”. Talk about draining all meaning out of someone’s work.
People want their work to matter
I’m sure I am doing a disservice to Ariely’s work by taking this out of context, but this is one of the best metaphors I have heard for taking the meaning out of someone’s work. It also got me to thinking, what are all the ways we drain meaning from our employees work? Dismantle their robots right before their eyes — maybe even without recognizing we are doing it? How can we build up the meaning instead?
1. Changing your mind all the time – Say someone completes a project you said was really important, but the IT priorities changed since you first assigned the task. Now, instead of accepting the work and thanking them, you cancel the project and ask them to do something else instead. Later you change your mind again, maybe even back to the first thing.
Robot parts are flying at this point!
Let people finish things. Don’t keep switching the task. Consider the full cost of changing your mind. If you really have to change your mind, thank people for the work, and communicate a reason why their work still counts, even though you have changed your mind.
2. Not accepting something different than you’d do it – Be careful here, just because it isn’t like you would do it, doesn’t mean that it’s not good enough, or maybe even better. Build the robot again, but this time use the blue Legos for the feet and the red ones for the arms because that is how I’d do it.
You are far more likely to create meaning if you accept good work, than if you tweak it to death. IT is detailed. While you may have to insist that certain processes like Change Control are followed to the letter, where there is room for interpretation let the intelligent, skilled technicians that make up your IT department use their own judgment.
Consider the alternative. If everything you delegate is done the same way as you do it, you will never find a better way of achieving something.
In fact, a CIO I know argues that if you need tasks done exactly the same way each time you should be finding a way to automate them. It is only the tasks that require interpretation, judgment or innovation that should be performed by humans.
3. Skipping the closure – The urgent customer issue or demand has disappeared because the business either won or lost the deal that was making this special IT project necessary and urgent. When you no longer feel the urgency, there is a temptation to never go back to collect the work because it no longer matters. But, just because it no longer has its original business meaning, and you have moved on to other things, doesn’t mean you should take the meaning away from the people that did the work.
Find the value in the completed work, even if the project has to end. What processes worked well? Which didn’t? What techniques were developed that could be used on subsequent projects? What channels of communication were made with the business that need to be maintained?
You can’t always let people finish things but don’t switch them out of a task before you have wrung the last piece of value out. It’s so much easier to just move on to your next urgent thing, but you are sacrificing your team’s motivation an ongoing performance and support if you skip this step.
Save the robot as a resource.
4. Not being clear about the strategy – This is probably the biggest and most common hazard I have seen. Ambiguous strategy causes lots of wasted time and energy working on the wrong things, or waiting for decisions to be made. It is really demotivating for people to deliver work into a strategic black hole.
That is like throwing their robots directly into the trash can. Make the strategy clear. It’s what creates meaning for the work.
Make sure the IT department knows the top 10 business priorities for this year, for example. Show the connections between the top ten business priorities and the top IT projects. “The reason we are building a new data center is because we expect much higher business volumes due to our expanding in to the far East and that means supporting more hardware”or “The reason we are implementing ITIL Incident, Problem and Change processes is because the business as a whole is focused on reducing execution risk, in order to compete against a new, more nimble competitor.”
Similarly, if IT services of projects are cut, show how this is based on the business no longer needing the deliverable.
5. Not connecting the dots – Even if the strategy is clear to you, don’t expect your staff to automatically see how their work fits into supporting the big picture. You need to spell it out and show them why their work matters. If you never connect the dots about how their work specifically supports the overall strategy, there is no meaning in it for them. Otherwise, they are just putting their robots on a conveyor belt to be used for unknown purposes.
Ensuring that all your employees understand how the business works, and how their work helps move it forward, motivates and enables them make better decisions and add more value. Make it explicitly clear how each service that IT delivers benefits the business. The more specific you can be the more motivated the staff will be.
Saying, “The business would fail without the IT department” may be true, but it isn’t very motivating for Tony and Sheila working in desktop support with salespeople shouting at them every day.
Saying, “It is important that we keep the sales laptops running at 99%+ availability now that the salesforce are using them to close business faster using the Web-based ordering system. Networking, Firewall, ERP support – that goes for you too!” … is much more likely to have a positive effect.
The bottom line is with or without financial rewards, your employees will do better work, faster, if they can personally see why it matters.
Today Patty is the CEO of Azzarello Group, a unique services organization that helps companies develop and motivate their top performers, execute their strategies, and grow their business, through talent management programs, leadership workshops, online products & public speaking.