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The meaning of work

“Why don’t my employees think like me?”

This refrain frequently comes out of the mouths of frustrated and perplexed business owners I work with. Sometimes the cause is poor judgment or a competency issue on the part of an employee, but most often it’s a matter of an employee’s attitude showing up in a surprising way.

The short answer to the question, “why don’t employees think like me as an owner?” is that they aren’t. And unless you put an employee stock ownership plan in place, they won’t be. Yet some companies have cultures in which employees do think and act like they’ve got a stake in the business and share the owner’s commitment to the success of the firm. This is the culture of high “employee engagement.”

The term “employee engagement” is showing up more and more in the business world. Because of the strong correlation between employee engagement and company performance, this factor is increasingly being measured on employee attitude surveys and focused on by management. I’m told by a friend who is a nationally known expert on employee surveys that management can significantly increase the percentage of their workforce that is highly engaged. And when they do, they achieve real competitive advantage.

While each industry and each company have different factors that drive employee engagement, there are some principles every business leader can employ to increase the level of employee engagement.

First, three structural elements need to be in place for people to perform at their peak: clear roles, clear understanding of goals and having the resources necessary to do the job. These pillars have been a part of management practice for decades.

Realizing that other, non-structural elements were at work, Daniel Goleman and others came up with the notion of emotional intelligence in the mid 1990s. We learned from their research that the bottlenecks to peak performance were almost always related to these “soft” factors. With a low “emotional quotient” in the workplace, employee energy is drained by office politics, ego management and conflict avoidance. High EQ environments, meanwhile, are characterized by high trust and respect, humor, collaboration, constructive disagreement and high performance. The only way to ensure your business has a high EQ environment is to make sure your emotional and social competencies and those of your managers are first rate.

Now, management research is building on the structural and EQ factors with a third category: meaning at work. The simple premise is that individuals who have a sense of meaning in what they do show greater commitment, take initiative and have substantially higher performance. In short, they think more like you do as a business owner.

Since finding meaning at work is highly personal, how can a business leader foster this? By linking the job with what matters to each employee in three ways. Motivate with small, unexpected rewards and sincere, well-timed praise.

Involve employees in decisions affecting their work. When people choose for themselves, they are far more committed to the outcome. And finally, connect the employees’ responsibilities to the bigger picture of their personal development, their contribution to their team and the impact their work has on your customers.

We all seek meaning in our lives and our work can be a substantial part of where we find it. The better you are at enhancing your employees’ sense of meaning in their work, the more you’ll find they “think like you do.”

Eric Gundlach is a Maryland-based consultant who helps individuals and organizations successfully plan and manage strategic transitions. 

About Eric Gundlach

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