Once upon a time, many years ago, I worked with an unhappy woman. We’ll call her Sheila — because that’s her name. Sheila worked as a customer service representative, fielding questions about bills and payments from accounts payable clerks at big companies. It was a hard job, and after doing it for nearly nine years, Sheila was extraordinarily good at it.
Though customers loved Sheila and her metrics were good, I wasn’t alone in finding her rather difficult to work with. What was the problem? Well, Sheila was what I like to call a compulsive problem identifier. In case it’s unclear, that’s just a euphemism for chronic complainer.
Working With a “Compulsive Problem Identifier”
You’ve probably worked with a Sheila. These folks are always the first to spot what their managers are doing wrong, how stupid executives are, how ineffective the latest policy is that “they” put in place. Typically, these are the same people who will tell you how unskilled all the other drivers on the road are, how immoral the latest reality television star is and how dumb the President is. Ask a Sheila for a solution to the problem, however, and she’s likely to ignore the question and move right on to the next complaint.
I’ll admit that I rushed to judge Sheila. With her relentless negativity and constant complaining, I just couldn’t figure out why her manager kept her around.
Finding Work That Matters — Even When Your Job Doesn’t
But then, one day around the holidays, I saw it. Each Christmas for the past eight years, Sheila had organized a potluck lunch and white elephant gift exchange for her department. Though this might sound like a lame team-building activity from The Office, the truth is that Sheila’s coworkers looked forward to this event throughout the whole year. It was a massive undertaking — food contributions to be arranged, gifts to be wrangled, rules to be enforced and 50 or so guests to be entertained.
And here’s the thing. When the day came for the big event, as cliché as it sounds, Sheila was practically glowing. You might’ve expected her to be a whining, complaining ball of stress, but it was just the opposite. In the eye of the storm, Sheila was unflappable.
And when the lunch hour came and Sheila kicked off the event as hostess and emcee, she was not only unflappable, but happy. She commanded the room with the grace and charm of a seasoned veteran. She told jokes, she smiled and she kept the energy high. In short, she was a delight.
As the event went on, I found myself developing a little bit of a crush on Sheila — not in any actual romantic way, but in the way that you do when you see someone at their strongest, happiest and most confident. When people are in that peak emotional and mental state — something like what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called flow — they are also at their peak attractiveness. I spotted Sheila’s manager across the room and tried to make meaningful eye contact. With my raised eyebrows and bulging eyeballs, I tried to say, “Who the heck is this person, and where has she been all this time?”
After the potluck, I amended my snap judgment of Sheila. I now saw her as a competent, confident and capable human being, and I wondered, “How could we get that Sheila to show up for work every day?” I liked that Sheila. That Sheila was fun. That Sheila was engaged. That Sheila was an unstoppable force of nature.
What a Whole Person Looks Like at Work
And that Sheila was whole. When she took charge of that white elephant exchange, she called upon all her skills, all her knowledge, all her experience and all her values. She took on with relish a challenge that was meaningful to her, and it required everything she had to do the job right. There was no room for complaining or compulsive problem identification. There was only the task at hand, and though it might’ve seemed trivial to me, it was a mission for Sheila.
“How can we make every day like that?” I asked Sheila’s manager. He looked me in the eye, smiled and shrugged.
Why Bringing Your Whole Self to Work Matters
Before we get into what it takes to bring your whole self to work, let’s talk a bit more about why it even matters. Why did I want Holiday Party Sheila to show up for work every day? After all, I’ve already admitted that she was pretty good at her job. Isn’t that enough?
You probably know me well enough by now to guess that the answer is NO. On a day-to-day basis, Sheila did her job. She interacted directly with customers, resolved their issues and achieved expected productivity targets. She’d be doing the job long enough that she could do this with relatively low energy, interest and engagement.
But when Sheila brought her whole self to work to coordinate and operate an elaborate event, she demonstrated alacrity, agility and affability that didn’t even seem possible. She enlisted, influenced and entertained a large group of people, kept the party running smoothly, and left folks wanting more — of both the party and of her.
Why did Sheila do it? And how much more might she be capable of in her job if we could tap into that same level of energy, interest and engagement? Could she take her performance from acceptable — from “meets expectations” in typical performance review lingo — to out-of-this-world rock star?
You probably know me well enough by now to guess that the answer is YES. But how?
Surprise! Money Doesn’t Motivate
One of the keys to bringing your whole self to work — and to ensuring that employees bring their whole selves to work, if you’re a manager or leader — lies in the mind-blowing, paradigm-crushing research pulled together by Daniel Pink in his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. This book is required reading for every corporate survivalist, but don’t worry. If you haven’t read it or you just prefer cartoons, you can get some of the big takeaways from the video at the bottom of this post. You can also read on.
In Drive, Pink details findings from several studies around the world about the nature of motivation, and he comes away with some conclusions that fly in the face of conventional wisdom. First, the research found that monetary rewards — bonuses, raises, that sort of thing — improved performance only on the most rudimentary of work, but that they actually had a negative impact on performance for work that required any level of intellectual commitment (i.e., most work done by most corporate survivalists).
What does that mean? It means that the rewards that are laid out for Sheila in her day-to-day work of solving complex problems for customers — rewards like performance bonuses and other material incentives — were probably decreasing her level of commitment and causing her to fall short of her potential. They were also contributing to a mechanistic view of work that probably contributed to Sheila’s tendency to find fault with nearly everything that “management” did or said.
Meaningful Work Is a Powerful Motivator
The second contrarian conclusion from Dan Pink’s book is that motivation is influenced far more by attributes of the work itself. Specifically, Drive points to three dimensions of work that inspire people to produce better, more creative work: autonomy, mastery and purpose.
Well, looky there! There’s our old friend, autonomy, raising her hand once again! You’ll remember her from her starring role in David Rock’s SCARF model. Well, as Pink pulled together the research on motivation, he found that people who were self-directed and able to decide for themselves how to get a job done were more effective than those who were micromanaged. When we’re able to exert our will in our work, we bring more of ourselves to work.
Mastery, our continual compulsion to get better and better at certain things, is equally powerful in Pink’s model. When we’re given the chance to learn and improve in tasks that matter to us — all the while challenging our skills and our past performance — we ignite a spark of motivation. On the other hand, when we’re yanked from one task to another, or when we’re given work that we can’t or don’t want to get better at, we disengage. It turns out we like being good at stuff!
Purpose is the final ingredient, and it’s the one that ties them all together. When I used the phrase “tasks that matter to us” in the preceding paragraph, I was hinting at this. The meaning and significance of our work matters to us. We do better work — and we bring more ourselves to our work — when we understand why we’re doing it (check back tomorrow for more on the power of “why”). The flip side of this is that work that doesn’t seem to have purpose — or where the purpose doesn’t connect to something we value — gets less of our attention and heart.
But let’s get back to Sheila. When Sheila put together and hosted this seemingly silly holiday party, she was batting a thousand on Pink’s AMP model. Because the event was her baby, Sheila made every decision on how it would operate, satisfying her need for autonomy. She’d done it several years in a row and continued to get better and better at it, thus giving her a sense of mastery. And she believed it was an important event for bringing her coworkers together and celebrating a holiday she found meaningful, so she had a sense of purpose. Bingo! Sheila was able to bring her whole self to the job of organizing and executing this event — but only once a year.
In her day job, on the other hand, Sheila was zero for three. You might think that, because she’d done the job for years, mastery was within her grasp. However, there were two problems: (1) there were no further meaningful challenges for Sheila that would make her feel that she was on the path of continuing to learn and master new stuff, and (2) the absence of both autonomy and purpose in her micromanaged, overmeasured, relatively meaningless work diminished the value of any mastery she had achieved. Mastery without meaning equals mechanics. Sheila didn’t need to bring her whole self to the job because it had become rote.
Now, let’s see what Sheila and her manager could have done to help her bring her whole self to work every day, instead of just once a year.
The keys to Sheila’s outstanding performance as mistress of ceremonies for the annual holiday party were her complete control over how the event went down (autonomy), her continual sense of learning and accomplishment (mastery) and her deeply held belief that the event was important (purpose). When I asked Sheila’s manager how we could get the same results in Sheila’s day job, and thereby, help her bring her whole self to work, he was at a loss. Frankly, so was I. But now, with the luxury of hindsight, we can reflect and figure out how to help the other Sheilas in the world.
Bring Your Whole Self to Work with Purpose
The first step in bringing your whole self to work is to figure out the higher purpose of your work, beyond the completion of tasks, keeping your job or getting a bonus. This requires tying the work to deeply held beliefs and values (remember the “think” ring?) and to who you want to be in the world (revisit the “be” ring for a refresher). Sheila needed to take time some time out to gain some explicit clarity on her beliefs and values.
One simple clarification exercise Sheila and her manager might’ve tried to increase her sense of purpose would be to sit down with a blank sheet of paper, reflecting on why the holiday event (her peak performance moment) was so important to her. What deeply held beliefs and values drove her to make that party so great? If I had to guess, it had something to with valuing community, camaraderie and relationships. These are the all-important “why” of Sheila’s performance in her personal and professional life (check out the video at the end of this post for Simon Sinek’s take on “why” at work).
Was there any chance she could get her daily work to those same valued experiences? Perhaps she needed to remind herself that the customers she served in her daily work were humans too — people with whom she could establish relationships and increase the sense of community and camaraderie. What if she posted photos in cubicle of some of the customers she only knew as voices on the telephone or names in the header of an email? What if she made an effort to ask each customer a rapport-building question (nothing too personal, but something like “What did you do this weekend?” or “What are your kids up to this summer?” would do the trick) that reminded both of them of their human connection? Would those simple changes in her routine increase Sheila’s sense of purpose in her daily work?
Seek Challenges You Can Master
Sheila would need this increased sense of meaning and purpose before moving on to tackle mastery and autonomy. After all, without a sense of purpose, she’s not likely to even feel motivated to take ownership and improve her performance. Once she had that, at least on paper, she and her manager could figure out how to increase Sheila’s sense of mastery. Remember that Sheila was already good at her job; the element that was missing was continued challenge and learning.
Could Sheila and her manager brainstorm some new challenges for her tackle? Maybe, after so many years of doing the same job, she could spend just a couple hours a week cross-training to learn someone else’s job. I’ve never worked in an organization where there wasn’t more than enough work to go around, so maybe there were some tasks on her manager’s plate that he could delegate to her, coaching and supporting her to master those. Or maybe Sheila could be appointed as a mentor and coach to new employees, gaining a whole new set of skills while supporting her value of community, camaraderie and relationships. Wouldn’t that give Sheila a greater sense of mastery and help her bring her whole self to work?
Negotiate for Autonomy
Increasing autonomy at work can be one of the toughest nuts to crack. However, as research has repeatedly shown, this is also one of the biggest levers of individual motivation. If I don’t feel like I can take charge of how I get my job done, I will bring less of myself to the job. Sheila and her manager need to spend some time together figuring out the key performance indicators (what corporatespeakers like to call “KPIs”) for her job.
What outcomes or results was Sheila expected to achieve? Could those be measured and monitored? If so, could Sheila’s manager learn to be comfortable with managing those results instead of managing Sheila? In other words, if Sheila and her manager could come to an agreement on what she was supposed to accomplish, they could leave it up to Sheila to figure out how to achieve those objectives autonomously. She might even be able to draw on the skills that made the holiday party such a huge success (or skills that made her a great mom) and use them to help her address customer issues more efficiently and effectively. In other words, she could apply her whole self to getting excellent results at work.
Start Bringing Your Whole Self to Work
Of course, these are just a few examples of ways to bring more of yourself to work. And, of course, there’s more to bringing your whole self to work than just autonomy, mastery and purpose (keeping work weird, for example). I hope you can see, though, that it doesn’t take much to feel more whole at work. The key is to act with intention — to take time out from the busyness of work for a little introspection. By taking just a few conscious steps to increase opportunities for purpose, mastery and autonomy at work, we can all bring more of ourselves to work.
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