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Does Your Work Matter?

Updated: Apr 4

But most of us have one thing in common: we’re seeking meaning. We want to know that our life has a purpose and that our time and energy are spent making the world a better place.

Except, for some reason, when it comes to work. A lot of us take crappy jobs with crappy bosses and crappy customers. We count the days until retirement. We spend 8-10 hours a day having the life drained out of us, trying to shore up whatever defenses we can so it doesn't infect the rest of our life.

Why do we do this? One-third of our lives are spent at work, which might be more than any other single category across our relationships and activities. When we spend more waking hours with our co-workers than we do with our family, we should probably choose co-workers very carefully.

But the problem is a lot bigger than just co-workers or work culture. Other things just aren't working about work:

  • employers aren't forthcoming about their priorities

  • teams are often dysfunctional

  • we treat work like a zero-sum game

Employer Priorities

Have you ever worked for a company that printed its core values on the walls?

Most core values are aspirational—a wish list of things employers want their staff to be. If a company actually values those things, you’ll see them in every person at the company. Hiring, firing, rewarding, and promoting decisions are based (at least partially) on them.

Most employers’ priorities seem to be about maximizing the returns of stakeholders. There's nothing wrong with this, but if all of your policies and decisions come back to a financially-driven target, you can lose sight of the bigger purpose and create an unhealthy work environment.

Dysfunctional Teams

Patrick Lencioni's 5 Dysfunctions of a Team Pyramid

In "The Five Dysfunctions of a Team," Patrick Lencioni writes a brilliant parable and business model for the things that prevent teams from thriving. You'll notice that the foundation for this model is trust.

Do you trust your co-workers? Lencioni would argue that if you do, you are probably more likely to engage in healthy conflict. When you trust your team and get a chance to have your voice be truly heard, it's easier to commit—even if you don't agree completely. This leads to increased accountability and, of course, better attention to the results your team needs.

For most of my life, I've heard the people around me complain about work and their co-workers. I don't think there's a lot of trust going around these days.

The Zero-Sum Game

Perhaps the root of our problems with work treating it like a zero-sum game. Every hour spent at work takes away from time at home, right? Success at work must cost you something, right? 

But what if you genuinely enjoyed your work? What if your work made the world a better place? What if you learned and grew and became a better person every day?

When the answer to these questions is “yes,” our work isn't a zero-sum game—and I believe we should consider everything else unacceptable.

What Can We Do About It?

There are a lot of things we can do.

  • Read The Truth About Employee Engagement - Lencioni describes three signs of a miserable job, and I think we all should make sure we push hard to find the inverse in our work (Measurement, Relevance, Being Seen/Heard).

  • Discover your core values - EOS® has a pretty cool approach (here is something similar) to this in which you examine your top employees—your role models—and find what they all have in common. Once you feel like you have your core values outlined, repeat them often and use them in all your business decisions.

  • Work the Venn diagrams - If you're familiar with the hedgehog concept or Ikigai, you know what I'm talking about. The Hedgehog Concept (as outlined by Jim Collins) encourages businesses to simplify based on what they're passionate about, what drives their economic engine, and what they are capable of being the best in the world at. Ikigai is a bit more subtle but focuses more on the individual than the business. Both can be used to zoom out and gain some perspective on how your work is impacting the world.

venn diagram depicting ikigai

The Noble Cause

Everyone needs a reason for work that is beyond profits, and it can't take mental gymnastics to connect day-to-day work with that purpose.

If you clean bathrooms at a middle school, your purpose isn't to clean toilets. It's not sparkling mirrors, either. It’s probably related to positively impacting future generations or making sure the educational environment is ideal for growth.

If you take pictures of utility poles, your purpose isn't to take great photos or to be the fastest fielder this side of the Mississippi. It's probably to protect the reliability of the electrical grid or to ensure that local communities have access to reliable, high-speed internet.

Does your work matter? Do you know why it matters?

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