What is your definition of Hell? If you ask a bunch of people, you might get answers like “Running on a treadmill at 10% incline… forever,” or “trying everything to get that Adele song out of your head – but failing… forever,” or perhaps something much darker, but with a similar theme of infinite effort, with no progress, and no purpose…. (forever).
In literary speak, this is a Sisyphean task – a nod to the poor Greek Sisyphus, who was cursed to push a colossal boulder up a mountain, only to have it roll all the way back down, and then to repeat the soul – and back – crushing task over and over, for eternity. All while his boss sipped coffee, surfed the internet and completely ignored him.
I embellished that last bit – but, there is a lesson for managers in this story. Without a sense of purpose at work, your employees might feel like Sisyphus pushing his boulder – or, like Dilbert, pushing paper – just showing up for the paycheck but cursed with the persistent nagging question, “Why am I even here?” This is depressing for them, and bad business for us as "actively disengaged" employees cost the U.S. at least an estimated $550 billion in squandered productivity each year.
Dan Ariely studied this in one of my favorite experiments. He had students complete a series of tasks like word puzzles for a diminishing payment each round, and measured how long they persisted before giving up. In one condition, the students handed their completed puzzle sheets to the study administrator, who acknowledged their efforts by examining their answers. In the second condition, the students’ completed work was received by the administrator but not acknowledged – essentially, the students were ignored as they dropped their papers onto a stack. In the third condition, the students’ completed work was received by the administrator… and immediately fed into a paper shredder, before the students’ very eyes. Brutal.
It’s probably no surprise that the students whose work was shredded were the first to give up on the word puzzles, as the payments decreased. The surprising, and crucial, finding was what happened in the other two conditions. The students whose work was ignored gave up almost as quickly as those whose work was shredded. Students whose work was acknowledged, on the other hand, persisted for far longer than did those in the other two conditions. In other words, a simple act of recognition went a long way – and ignoring someone’s work was almost as bad as shredding it.
Many of us can relate to the “why am I even here” problem. I once worked in a corporate strategy division of a large company, where my job seemed to consist of creating meta presentations about presentations, some of which were never presented. We called ourselves the PowerPoint Division. In a moment of existential crisis, a bewildered colleague once turned to me in detached disbelief and asked, “Is this real? Are we dead? I feel like I’m in The Sixth Sense.”
Creating a sense of meaning and purpose in the workplace is a wise investment. Research has shown that meaning also has a direct impact on an individual's health, well-being, and ability to work well in teams. Nearly three-quarters of workers at a purpose-driven company feel engaged and happy at the office. Contrast this with the meta-analytic findings that pay and job satisfaction are only marginally correlated. The sense of coherence, direction, significance, and belonging derived from meaning in the working life, on the other hand, can reap dividends in happiness and productivity.
As far as business investments go, it takes surprisingly little to remind people of their purpose. In a famous 2007 experiment, Adam Grant and his colleagues found that university call center employees raised over 170% more alumni donations than a control group, after reading letters from students who had received scholarships from those donations. A reminder of purpose made even cold calls more meaningful, as the employees were inspired by the real “why” behind their work.
What is your company purpose? The words you choose to describe your vision and values also make a big difference when it comes to cultivating a sense of purpose at work. Drew Carton’s research on image-based vision statements demonstrates how describing your company’s purpose with concrete - instead of abstract – words, helps employees see the vision. They then also orient around a shared cognition to get there together. In one study, he had participants work in teams to construct a set of toys for a fictional toy company. One group was guided by the abstract vision statement, “Our toys… will be enjoyed by all of our customers,” while the other was shown an image-based version, “our toys…will make wide-eyed kids laugh and proud parents smile.” The latter group collaborated better, worked more efficiently, and produced superior toys, as judged by a panel of discerning children (making this the cutest behavioral science paper ever).
If this feels familiar, recall the NASA custodian who, when asked what his job was by John F. Kennedy in 1962, replied, “I’m helping to put a man on the moon.” There is a reason JFK didn’t set a national vision of “…building the most advanced space technology and innovation division to advance the scientific pursuit of air and space travel exponentially over the coming decades…” Instead, he painted a picture with his words – filling our mind’s eyes, and our collective hearts, with a crystal-clear vision of “landing a man on the moon.”
With a sense of purpose, all of us can find meaning, even in the menial. Choose your words, and design your programs, carefully to remind your employees that their efforts matter – to you, to the company, and to a greater purpose for the world.