Welcome to the new normal. We’re adding jobs daily, but most people are still miserable at work. Workplace study data confirms what leaders are experiencing: work is harder, over half of all employees are disengaged and many people actively hate their jobs.
In the old days leaders could rally the troops by painting a picture of a glorious, prosperous future, garlanded with bonuses, perks and advancement. Today, people want both money and meaning. They’re also less trusting of senior leadership promises having seen evidence that a merger, acquisition, economic downturn, or CEO change makes all past promises null and void.
Given the climate, how can well-intended leaders galvanize their teams? It’s simple, but not easy. You must go beyond the traditional transactional approach to work and address three core human needs:
1. Connection: Get emotional.
Discussing emotions at work can make people queasy. But have you ever noticed that you never hear managers saying, “Please don’t get so excited?” Emotions are at the center of every human endeavor.
What would happen if you walked in one day, looked one of your employees in the eye and told him or her, “I’m so grateful you’re on our team, and it’s not just about the work; it’s also about how much you as a person add to this place. I love having you here”? It sounds hokey, but every time I suggest this in a presentation, people’s eyes fill with tears. Human connection isn’t a nice thing to have; it’s a must-have. Meaningful connections provide people with the internal fortitude they need to stay productive during tough times.
2. Meaning: Provide Context.
We all want to know our lives – and work – actually count for something. A person who makes widgets may do a good job of quality control. But if his boss holds a team meeting every Monday morning and shares stories about people who bought the widgets and how their lives were made better, more fun, more interesting, safer or easier as a result, that imagery is going to stick. The person responsible for stamping out part 357A will know his work counts for something more than a production number. He has a purpose.
3. Leadership: Apply Daily.
It would be nice if we all went through our days feeling beloved by our families and co-workers secure in the knowledge our work makes a real difference. Sadly, angst and worry are the typical default setting for the human brain. Left to the mercy of our own perceptions, our jobs can descend into an endless series of meaningless tasks. That’s why we need leaders who can reset us in times of uncertainty and challenge.
In fact, one of the essential roles of a leader is to remind your team why their work matters. When employees seem like they don’t care, it’s often because leadership hasn’t given them anything important to care about. Revenue objectives, market share targets and productivity numbers are worthy goals. But the secret of true emotional engagement is to get beyond the numbers and make it personal.
People who are connected to each other and have a sense of purpose about their work will push through tough conditions to get things done. If your team is facing a challenge, or they seem to be disengaged, ask yourself: Do they know why their work matters? And most importantly, do I as a leader reinforce meaning and connection every single day?