“There is an ugliness in being paid for work one does not like,” Anaïs Nin wrote in a 1941 diary entry.
Over seventy-five years later, many people continue to struggle to find a fulfilling career that gives them a sense of purpose. Despite an endless supply of self-help books telling people to follow their passion, the majority of employees are still disengaged at work.
With several lifetimes’ worth of advice telling us to do so, why hasn’t everyone just quit their jobs to follow their dreams? And why haven’t we made a dent in this percentage of disengaged employees?
Maybe because there’s much more to having a fulfilling career than merely following your passion. And one of the most influential aspects rarely gets the focus it deserves.
The Ingredients of an Engaging Career.
Self-determination theory – that behavior that occupies the penthouse of Maslow’s hierarchy – says that for people to be intrinsically motivated they need three things: autonomy, competence, and relatedness.
Autonomy – The feeling that you’re in control and that what you do is important.
Competence – The feeling that you’re good at what you do and it gives you the opportunity to keep improving.
Relatedness – The feeling of connection to other people.
This isn’t new. Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan developed these ideas over 25 years ago. And there’s really nothing groundbreaking in telling people that if they want to have meaningful careers, they need to do work that’s worthwhile, work they’re good at, and work with people they like.
So where’s the disconnect? Why do we still have reports saying that more than 4 out of 5 workers are disengaged in their careers?
Maybe because one factor that influences all of these areas is consistently overlooked until it’s too late. We’ve all heard that people leave good jobs because of bad managers. Yet we rarely make this a high priority when evaluating new jobs.
Managers are responsible for setting expectations and responsibilities, encouraging growth, and building strong teams. Managers provide constructive feedback and align the work to a greater mission. Those who excel in these areas are able to inspire employees to perform at their best. And those who struggle contribute to that percentage of disengaged workforce.
So if we’re hoping to lead engaging careers, we need to recognize this impact. And we need to recognize the key behaviors that define great managers.
“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” – George Bernard Shaw
The basis for any healthy relationship is good communication. Great managers know this and make it a priority.
Every manager must remember that employees are people first and people have a natural need to develop relationships and connect. It doesn’t just develop trust. It’s necessary for trust to develop.
Great managers make communication a daily priority. They recognize that their interests are defined by what they communicate. As Adam Grant recently wrote,
“We reveal our goals through action but our values through attention. To find out what people value, pay attention to their attention.”
People become engaged in companies where they feel valued. One of the most important roles of a manager is to communicate that appreciation.
Because when people feel valued, they know they’re doing something valuable.
Set Clear Expectations.
“He was swimming in a sea of other people’s expectations. Men had drowned in seas like that.” – Robert Jordan, New Spring (Wheel of Time #0)
Earlier in my career, I was interviewing a girl who asked me, “what does it take to be successful here?”
I stumbled through the answer, giving her some vague ideas that mimicked a job description. Not surprisingly, she elected to find a job with a manager who could better articulate their vision of success.
If managers can’t clearly define what’s necessary for their people to be successful, they have no right holding people accountable for their performance.
When employees don’t understand what’s expected of them, they lose a sense of autonomy and don’t feel connected to the organization. They become quickly frustrated as they try to hit a target they can’t see.
Conversely, great managers communicate these expectations frequently. They offer perspective on their employees’ responsibilities and progress, constantly reinforcing their expectations and vision.
Every manager should be able to write down the behaviors and performance that will lead to success. Because if they can’t write it down, they don’t understand it.
Provide Alignment to the Mission.
Every employee wants to feel as though their work matters. As Nietzsche famously put it, “he who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”
Most companies have missions. But it’s in how managers tie it to the actual work that determines whether it’s an inspiration or some empty words on a placard.
What is the big question that everyone in the company is trying to solve? Does every employee see their work as supporting this mission?
Every manager must be able to clearly communicate where the company is going and how each person’s work influences that path. Employees want to know what their organization stands for and why. And they want to know how their role supports that purpose.
Once people recognize this, they see their role as more than just a job. They’re motivated not just by money, but by the meaning that they provide.
As the great Stephen Hawking described, “Work gives you meaning and purpose and life is empty without it.”
Coach for Development.
In The Wealth of Nations, the philosopher-economist Adam Smith, despite encouraging systems of mass production, recognized the potential for this work to dehumanize people over time and reduce them to the repetitive motions of their labor. He wrote,
“The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations…has no occasion to exert his understanding, or to exercise his invention, in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur. He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become.”
People have an innate need for challenge and development. A career that offers the opportunity to continually develop and learn new skills is an exciting career. When people are growing, they’re engaged. And they respond with their best efforts.
Great managers actively provide these opportunities, even if they take people outside their authority. They know the areas that their people want to strengthen and set them up with challenges to offer that opportunity.
A bored employee is a disengaged employee. And the true opposite of fulfillment is apathy.
Play to People’s Strengths.
“When we don’t talk to the people we’re leading about their strengths and their opportunities for growth, they begin to question their contributions and our commitment. Disengagement follows.” – Brene Brown, Daring Greatly
I once had an engineer that couldn’t manage a schedule to save his life. He was a technical wizard, but couldn’t remember to wear the right shoes on a daily basis.
After three months of trying to force him to be a project manager, a role he was ill-equipped to do, he broke down and yelled at me, “why do you insist on making me bowl left-handed?”
I’d wanted to make him well-rounded. I wanted him to be a good project manager in addition to his technical capabilities. But I didn’t realize that when you have a star bowler, you don’t need him to bowl well left-handed.
When we prioritize we’ll-roundedness, we force people into roles they don’t enjoy. We take people who want to make a difference and limit their capability. All of which leads to resentment and creeping apathy.
Great managers understand their people’s strengths and tailor job responsibilities to fit them. In the words of the great management consultant Peter Drucker,
“To achieve results, one has to use all the available strengths—the strengths of associates, the strengths of the superior, and one’s own strengths. These strengths are the true opportunities. To make strength productive is the unique purpose of organization.”
Engaged employees want to make a difference. Focusing on their strengths gives them the best opportunity to do that.
Every manager delegates. The difference between great and average managers is often in what they choose to delegate. In the wise words of David Ogilvy,
“The best way to ‘install a generator’ in a man is to give him the greatest possible responsibility. Treat your subordinates as grown-ups — and they will grow up.”
When managers delegate big, they show employees that they trust them with meaningful responsibilities. And few things empower people to deliver their best results more than by giving them an identity to live up to.
Or as Tim Ferriss wrote in The 4-Hour Workweek, “It’s amazing how someone’s IQ seems to double as soon as you give them responsibility and indicate that you trust them.”
Hold the Standard.
“The price of greatness is responsibility.” – Winston Churchill
You can’t go five clicks online without reading about some glorified failure story. They’re everywhere.
So yes, failure’s important. But one of the greatest responsibilities a manager can have is to hold the highest standard. One of the greatest gifts that managers can give their employees is to demand that they perform to their top capacity.
It’s easy to drop that standard. We rationalize it away by saying it’s just this time. But in the words of Tom Peters, “Excellence is the next five minutes or nothing at all.”
Just as top athletes rely on coaches to demand their best performance, employees benefit from managers who maintain high expectations.
Great managers expect the best. They make that expectation known. And they hold people accountable to it.
There’s no faster way to help people achieve their best. As Aristotle famously said,
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”
Build Great Teams.
“Often, success or failure turns on this question of human relations. … Any time you do not enjoy the human relations involved in any job, sooner or later that job’s bound to be work, not fun.” – William J. Reilley, How to Avoid Work
No matter how wonderful a job is, employees are unlikely to stay engaged with it if they dislike their coworkers. Whether it’s a cutthroat culture that sets people constantly on edge or just a poor mix of strengths, a
Great managers understand the different roles and how people best fit into those roles. Then they hire and develop people to support the needs of the team, as opposed to individual success.
Great managers recognize that success comes from building teams with complementary skills, not necessarily similar skills. As Steve Jobs put it,
“Great things in business are never done by one person. They’re done by a team of people.”
Don’t Settle for Bad Management.
“An employee’s motivation is a direct result of the sum of interactions with his or her manager.” – Bob Nelson
We spend nearly around half our waking hours in some kind of work. We can have that time be filled with excitement and adventure. Or it can be a monotonous bore.
We all get to make this choice. We all have the opportunity to find careers that offer meaning and growth and cultures that are worth our time.
We obsess over finding great jobs. We research company missions and cultures until we find the perfect match. Yet people continue to leave these good jobs because of poor management.
A great manager can make any job meaningful, whereas a poor manager can take the best job and make it a miserable drain.
Know what great management looks like. And don’t settle for anything less. Because in the insightful words of William J. Reilley’s 1949 classic, “Your life is too short and too valuable to fritter away in work.”