Finding Meaning at Work – Extracts from an Interview with Dave Ulrich

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Why is Employee Experience Important?

Improving Employee Experience has been ranking at the highest levels of the agenda for both HR executives and business leaders for a while now. Given the present state of flux within international markets placing constant pressures on the workforce, HR must strengthen its employee experience practices to ensure the people at the heart of the organization are afforded the best possible environment to work in. With the rapid rise of mobile, cognitive and other technological systems, the boundaries traditionally encompassing employee engagement measurements have been effectively usurped. Many organizations are therefore now looking to build initiatives around a holistic, end-to-end approach that takes into consideration the numerous variables of the human relationship with work to drive increased performance.

7 Actionable Steps to become the ‘Meaning Maker’

In 2010 we sat down with Dr. Dave Ulrich to discuss his book The Why of Work: How Great Leaders Build Abundant Organizations That Win. Extracts from the interview provide a timeless lens to approach understanding of the search for organizational meaning and success.

Dave Ulrich is a Professor at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business. He studies how organizations build capabilities of leadership, speed, learning, accountability, and talent through leveraging human resources. Professor Ulrich has published over 150 articles and book chapters and 22 books. Dave Ulrich is listed in Thinkers 50 as a management thought leader and is ranked as the most influential person in HR by HR Magazine, Listed in Forbes as one of the “world’s top five” business coaches, He has consulted and done research with over half of the Fortune 200.

Mihaly Nagy: Your book the “Why of Work” is based on a simple premise: “Employees who find meaning at work will have a better work experience that will translate into improved performance, more satisfied customers, and more profitable companies.” This notion is probably not a surprise for anyone, however the question is what specific steps can an organization do in order to achieve this?

Dr. Dave Ulrich: We culled the literature on meaning to identify what specific things leaders could do to instill meaning at work. We identified seven actions leaders could take to become meaning makers, each of which is associated with a question they can answer for themselves and their employees:

  1. Identity: Who am I? Employees have more meaning when the strengths which shape their identity are used to strengthen others.
  2. Purpose: Where am I going? Employees have more meaning when they work in a company that has a meaningful purpose that engages them.
  3. Relationships: Who do I travel with? Employees have more meaning when they work with people they admire, respect, and feel connected to.
  4. Work environment: What are the routines or culture of our work? Employees have more meaning when their work setting is positive and affirming.
  5. Work challenges: What work do I do? Employees have more meaning when they are doing work that excites and energizes them.
  6. Learning and Growth: What do I learn from at work? Employees have more meaning when they are able to learn and grow from the work they do.
  7. Civility and Delight: Employees have more meaning when they bring a sense of fun and delight into their work.

These are clearly not exclusive and the only factors that provide meaning, but when people we talk to think about “what makes your work meaningful?’ generally their answers fall into one of these seven dimensions.

MN: In your book, you refer to meaningful companies as “Abundant Organizations”. Could you please explain what is an ‘abundant organization’ and why is it important to become one?

DU: An abundant organization [1] provides meaning to its employees, [2] creates value for its stakeholders, e.g., customers and investors, and [3] offers hope for humanity. Abundant organizations play a critical role in society as a whole. We spend an enormous amount of time at work, and we should shape these organizations, not just to achieve a certain gross domestic product but to make a meaningful impact for everyone. Making meaning makes cents and sense. Abundant organizations are more productive, have higher customer loyalty scores, and higher market value. Abundance implies plenty: enough and to spare, fullness. If we focus on what we stand to gain from our crises, not just what we stand to lose, abundance thinking can replace deficit thinking.

Abundance implies plenty: enough and to spare, fullness. If we focus on what we stand to gain from our crises, not just what we stand to lose, abundance thinking can replace deficit thinking.

Abundance looks to future opportunity more than past disappointments, promotes hope over despair, suggests change for the future rather than languishing in the past, and fosters the creation of new meaning where old meanings have broken down.

Abundance implies that we can make meaning even in the midst of challenges. The abundance we imagine is not just an abundance of visible assets (money, prestige, security, or position), but one of an intangible sense of purpose, identity, growth, and well-being. You shift from fear-based deficit thinking to a way of life that focuses on all that you have, not all you have lost—on life’s goodness and personal meaning, not just on its precariousness.

To survive, organizations must not only amass capabilities but must also turn internal capabilities into value for external stakeholders. Capabilities link what goes on inside the company to what customers will pay for and what investors trust. Organizational capabilities more readily lead to lasting value when leaders promote meaning making as well as money-making.

As leaders weave affirming stories, find heroes and causes, embody ethical and trusted values, clarify principles that lend order and rationality to decisions and routines, and make visible the ways employees’ efforts help the company contribute to a greater good, they create organizations that overflow with a sense of meaning and abundance.

MN: Organizations way too often define “leadership” from the corporate point of view forgetting to use the reference of those who are being led. They way too often try to identify “leadership gaps” and make managers to work on their ‘incompetency’ instead of building on their strength and talent. What specific steps would you recommend to take in order to develop an effective leadership culture that impacts?

DU: We distinguish between leaders and leadership. Leaders are individuals who may be charismatic and visible, but leadership is embedded into the culture of an organization.

Leaders matter, but leadership matters more. Click To Tweet

To build sustainable leadership as a way of life throughout an organization, leaders need to pay attention less to what they do and more to how what they do impacts others. In popular parlance we are told to build on our strengths, but we like to talk about building on our strengths that strengthen others.

To build the right leadership culture, we start with customers: what do we, as an organization want to be known for by our best customers? The answer to this question then should shape the leadership behaviors and actions inside the company. In some companies, we have furthered the study of leadership by looking at the media campaigns… what is the message the company is sending in its print and television ads. How then does this message get transferred into what leaders inside the company do?

MN: Professor Ulrich, thank you very much! 

Originally published 31st Aug, 2010

Employee Experience Module at the HR Congress

The Employee Experience module at The HR Congress will explore some of the key trends around how organizations and employees can work together in order to create more meaningful work and workplaces. With the culmination of study, literature and practical experiences into how to create meanings and contexts for work and workers to flourish, HR professionals now have a greater mandate than ever before to influence the development of exceptional experiences for their employees, and in turn, the business too.

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