Required Reading: The Search for Meaningful Work

Required Reading: The Search for Meaningful Work
The Why of Work - How Great Leaders Build Abundant Organizations That Win
David Ulrich and Wendy Ulrich,
McGraw-Hill, New York, 2010   

Abundant organizations have employees who search for and create meaning for themselves and others as well as producing a product or service. The Why of Work is about firms like these and their employees who are highly motivated, creative, and productive. The authors, David and Wendy Ulrich, are a business professor and a psychologist who study individuals and organizations and their impacts upon each other.

The focus here is on the search for meaning in life. David and Wendy started their research with why and how questions: why do people search for meaning and how do leaders encourage this behaviour? The why question has an underlying psychological driver that was pointed to many years ago by the psychologist Viktor Frankl in Man's Search for Meaning: People search for meaning so they attain a more positive state where they become fulfilled, have a greater sense of identity, and improve their well-being.

The Why of Work points to seven facets of work that enable employees to find meaning. An ideal employee, who uses all seven paths, achieves more meaning by having work where one uses one's strengths, strives for goals, participates in teamwork, finds work challenging, works in a positive environment, learns resilience from change, and experiences happiness. One chapter is devoted to each of the seven paths. Some chapters contain more gems than others.

Some find meaning through using their personal strengths. Those emphasized in The Why of Work are the Signature Strengths of Positive Psychology: wisdom and knowledge, courage, temperance, humanity, justice, and transcendence. An organization is more successful when recruits are selected who have signature strengths which line up with the organization's purposes. For example, an innovative IT company needs employees who are high on the Signature Strength of wisdom and knowledge, which includes the Cognitive Strengths of curiosity, creativity, and love of learning. A hospitality firm wants people who are high on the Signature Strength of humanity, which encompasses kindness, generosity, social intelligence, and loving. Thus, one way that leaders can aim to have an abundant organization is by selecting employees with the right signature strengths for their industry.

Another path to meaningful work is having goals. The Why of Work stresses four kinds of underlying goals that vary by their focuses on relationships and on accomplishment. Each individual often focuses on just one kind of goal. Great leaders learn about all four so they can motivate all kinds of employees. People with achievement goals focus on accomplishments and are hardworking and internally motivated. Those with connection goals focus on relationships and emphasize their sharing of life with other people. Those with empowerment goals focus on both relationships and accomplishments and attain deeper meaning from being socially responsible. Those with insight goals have low emphasis on both relationships and accomplishments, but do find deeper meaning in the world of ideas and are mindful of moment-by-moment experiences.

In this way, The Why of Work stresses the importance of having a variety of goals, particularly in an organization with a Balanced Scorecard that contains the triple-P approach of performance-people-planet to measure success in financial, customer/employee, and societal domains. David and Wendy Ulrich recommend that an organization can become abundant by first deciding which of the four kinds of goals (achievement, connection, and empowerment, and insight) are most important, and then selecting employees who are motivated by these goals.

The Why of Work examines five more paths to finding meaningful work: relationships, positive work environment, challenging work, resilience, and happiness. David and Wendy show how each topic can lead to a more abundant organization. The emphasis is on how each organization has to find its own path to abundance by creating situations where employees find meaning.

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