Fiona Smith Columnist

Fiona writes on workplace issues, including management, psychology, workplace design, human resources and recruitment. She is a former Work Space editor at The Australian Financial Review and has also covered property, technology, architecture and general news.

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The worst job in the world is one that’s pointless

Published 23 November 2012 10:51, Updated 30 January 2013 21:59

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If I think of the worst job in the world, it would be one that has no meaning.

It would be toiling on a project you know will never come to reality. Or watching your work be torn apart every afternoon, ready for you to start again the next morning.

A 2011 survey of hundreds of thousands of workers by CarreerBliss finds that the most hated jobs are not the worst-paid or the most physically gruelling but those in which workers believe they are going nowhere.

They are jobs including director of information technology, director of sales and marketing, senior web developer and law clerk.

It is not like heading down the salt mines with a pick over your shoulder but US management author Steve Denning says the people who hate these jobs are “imprisoned in hierarchical bureaucracies”.

“They see little point in what they are doing. The organisations they work for don’t know where they are going, and as a result, neither do these people,” he says in a Forbes article.

The managing partner of McKinsey & Company in Australia and New Zealand, Michael Rennie, is passionate about the importance of finding meaning in work.

“Meaning is the biggest source of energy in the whole system,” he says.

“If you want a high-performance workplace, link the task to people’s sense of meaning. Traditionally, this has not been a key part of workplaces, which tend to be top-down pyramids, where everybody is doing what they are told.”

Rennie says that to be motivated, people need to feel challenged. But if the goals set for them are too big, too hairy and too audacious, they will have the opposite effect.

If it is too easy, it will either have no effect or it will just increase cynicism.

“One of the key things in happiness is where you feel stimulated but not so over-stimulated that it is stressful. You need appropriate challenge and flow,” he says.

If the organisation and team is supportive, employees can actually take on bigger goals than they thought possible.

“If you ask people to pick a time in their career when they did things with others, the sort of things they would tell their grand-kids about, they would say it was when they were doing this big, almost impossible, thing and it was meaningful,” Rennie says.

Unfortunately, leaders are often the ones who are robbing work of its meaning. They often misunderstand what it is that is getting people out of bed to work for them in the morning. It is not only the money and it is not about increasing shareholder value or crushing the competition.

Rennie says that even at board level only about 20 per cent of the motivation is to increase shareholder value. The rest of may be about making the world a better place or helping make other people’s lives easier.

So handing down a values statement that is all about benefits to the company is certainly not going to capture the hearts and minds of the employees.

An article in McKinsey Quarterly magazine on how leaders kill meaning, says leaders often unwittingly undermine meaning at work every day through “dismissing the importance of subordinates’ work or ideas, destroying a sense of ownership by switching people off project teams before work is finalised, shifting goals so frequently that people despair that their work will ever see the light of day, and neglecting to keep subordinates up to date on changing priorities for customers”.

The authors are the Edsel Bryant Ford professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, Teresa Amabile, and researcher Steven Kramer.

In researching the electronic diaries of dozens of professionals in North American companies, the authors identify four common ways in which leaders destroy meaning.

Mediocrity signals: The company aspired to greatness but inadvertently signals the opposite by negating the autonomy of teams and through continual pressure to reduce costs.

Attention deficit disorder: Starting and abandoning initiatives too frequently, not allowing sufficient time to discover whether initiatives are working and not giving sufficient rationale when they make strategic shifts.

Corporate Keystone Cops: Being blithely unaware they preside over misco-ordination, failure to act and corporate tangles such as overly complex matrix reporting structures.

Overly grandiose goals: They have little relevance or meaning for people in the trenches. “Cynicism rises and drive plummets.”

When asked for an example of an organisation that had managed to turn itself around by investing in creating meaning, Rennie holds up the ANZ Bank, which had the Breakout cultural change program under former CEO John McFarlane.

“Between 2000 and 2004, it went from worst-performing bank to pretty well the best and he did it by creating an extraordinary team environment and they set them almost impossible goals.

“They doubled the share price in almost five years. They grew the business and cut costs,” says Rennie, who worked closely with McFarlane to develop the program.

Rennie will be speaking on the topic of “Love, Fear and High Performance” at the Creative Innovation conference in Melbourne, November 28 to 30.

In the UK, human resources services group Penna has found that people who feel their work has meaning have increased motivation, loyalty, pride and productivity. Other findings are:

  1. Younger employees (under 35) will respond most positively to finding meaning at work.
  2. One-third of employees work in organisations that have values that do not reflect their own.
  3. 56 per cent of directors feel their job is vital to their sense of personal identity.
  4. Work-life balance is an important part of meaning at work, yet 25 per cent are putting in more hours than a year ago.
  5. One in 10 workers find more of a sense of community at work than they do at home or in their social lives.
  6. 7 per cent of employees surveyed feel no pride in working for their organisation.
  7. 15 per cent of employees would not recommend their organisation as a place to work to their friends and a further 7 per cent would actively discourage friends from joining.

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