Wednesday, July 29, 2009

What makes work meaningful?

On a Mission
What makes work meaningful? If you think money or prestige, think again.

by Susan Ellingwood
Never before, perhaps, has work been imbued with such significance. Less than a week after the terrorist attacks on September 11, President Bush urged Americans to "go back to work." Since then, resuming one's routine has become an act of defiance, an expression of patriotism and, as a practical matter, America's best hope for averting a severe economic downturn.

Yet measured against the pain and efforts of the past few months, the tasks associated with our jobs can seem trivial. Which prompts a question, important in the days before September 11 but of greater consequence now: What makes work meaningful?


Since 1996, The Gallup Organization has used a 12-question survey, Q12, to assess employee engagement, or the degree to which workers are involved in their jobs. One of the questions is: Does the mission/purpose of my company make me feel like my job is important? (See "Item 8: My Company's Mission or Purpose" in the "See Also" area on this page.) By mission, Gallup means a company's core values and purpose, says Curt Coffman, global practice leader for Gallup's Workplace Management Practice. Mission does not imply strategy or financial outcomes, says Coffman. Rather, a company's mission statement describes "its spiritual DNA," helping to ensure that values drive goals and not vice versa.

What many executives don't realize, however, is that a company's mission statement can also be a management tool. But it is only useful to the extent that each employee links the mission to his or her job. "It's the second part of the question that's key," says Coffman, "the part that ascertains whether the individual feels that his or her job is an expression of the mission."

When employees make the job-mission connection, the result is a boost in morale and performance, says James K. Harter, senior research director at Gallup. "High scores on the Q12 mission question correlate positively to all desirable business outcomes," he says, but especially to productivity and profitability. That's because employees who share a mission tend to be engaged, and the more engaged employees there are in a company, the better the bottom line. In a recent Gallup sample of U.S. workers 18 and older, 60% of respondents who agreed that their company's mission made them feel their jobs were important were engaged, while none of the respondents who disagreed about the job-mission connection were engaged. A clear sense of mission also appears to enhance employee loyalty and pride: Among those who agree that the company mission made them feel their job was important, 82% planned to be with the company for at least another year, 63% would recommend the company as a place to work and 66% would recommend its products or services.

The sobering news for managers is that, of all the Q12 questions, low scores on the mission question are among the most difficult to improve. The reason: The ability to connect one's job to a larger mission is not primarily a matter of competence, work ethic or other such traits that good workers naturally possess. Instead, the job-mission connection comes about through communication that starts at the executive level and resonates throughout the ranks. For effective communication to occur, top management must first believe in the mission, a process that requires consensus and clarity. That, Gallup has found, occurs when companies include workers from throughout the company in their mission-statement development committees. The best statements, says Coffman, are "short, direct, and set a value system."

Once a mission statement is developed, it must be disseminated in employee manuals and reports, and reinforced by the company's officers in speeches and public pronouncements. A manager also needs to explain to employees how their duties fit with the mission. "It's not just one conversation with the boss," says Don Beck, a Gallup management consultant in Washington, D.C. The role of mission should also be a topic in discussions about performance, promotions and transfers, and even in informal conversations. Indeed, a perfect opportunity to forge the job-mission link is when a manager and an employee discuss the employee's career, says Beck. The manager can urge the employee to evaluate how his or her aims conform to or conflict with the mission. By so doing, the employee will make the job-mission connection, or realize that his or her goals are leading in a different direction. Either way, the exercise is essential for arriving at decisions that are best for the individual and the company.

Mission can also be reinforced when a manager recognizes good performance. At a chain of hospitals where Gallup consulted, for example, some employees said they did not feel that the mission made them feel their jobs were important. As one corrective measure, Adam Pressman, Gallup Q12 program leader in Lincoln, Neb., suggested that managers refer to the mission's emphasis on caring and respect for human life when acknowledging employees. "Thanking a receptionist for making a visitor feel cared for or praising a nurse for helping to save someone's life was a way to make the job-mission connection," says Pressman.

Managers should also be aware that even engaged employees benefit from a focus on mission. At Caterpillar Americas, a unit of Caterpillar Inc. that operates throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, a theme of the mission is "power of people." When the company underwent a Q12 evaluation in 1999, its score on the mission question placed it in the 61st percentile of all the companies in Gallup's database. The Caterpillar managers wanted to do better. So, during follow-up meetings with their workgroups, they discussed questions they had designed to probe elements of the "power of people" mission. For example, they asked whether employees agreed that the company "helps people improve" and whether employees "feel free to speak openly." By 2000 the mission score had risen to the 84th percentile. Don Elder, the Six Sigma champion for Caterpillar Americas, attributes the increase to the company's plans to improve engagement that followed these discussions. After all, by sharing a mission, employees understood not just where they were headed but why.

The Q12 items are protected by copyright of Gallup, Inc., 1993-1998. All rights reserved.

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