Wes Adams is the CEO of SV Advisory Group and an expert on meaningful work, wellbeing, and high-performing teams.
Lately the internet has been abuzz with “quiet quiet” rumors, the habit of sitting back and doing the bare minimum your job requires. While the term silent stopping is popular at the moment, I believe it’s just a new name for an old problem: detachment.
This year in the US, employee engagement dropped for the first time in more than a decade with only 34% of employees reporting being engaged. This lack of motivation and effort costs organizations a lot of money because when an employee’s experience makes sense to them, they produce nearly $10,000 more in labor output each year, according to BetterUp.
The ‘involvement gap’
Retaining and motivating good people in today’s market can seem like a losing battle. Many of the senior leaders I recommend feel that their employees speak a different language. There is a significant gap between what leaders think their employees want and what employees actually want. I call this the ‘engagement gap’.
One of the biggest tensions I see right now is location flexibility and the return to the office. I see many senior leaders say, “Come in, it’s better for collaboration,” while younger employees ask, “Why? What do we get out of the extra effort?” Frustration grows on both sides, leading to withdrawal and attrition.
Leaders have tried to attract employees and get them to come to the office by focusing on higher salaries and nice perks. This was not successful. A large percentage of people who took on new jobs during the Great Layoff stayed for less than a year, according to a LinkedIn study of half a million job changes in 2021 (via Business Insider).
While I’m a proponent of higher salaries and generously compensating people, these are just tables in today’s environment. Encouraging employees to come to the office with food and fun events might get them to show up, but it won’t motivate them to work hard or stay long. What I believe employees need, and what can provide employers with the greatest return on investment, is meaningful work.
Meaningful Work: The Antidote to Silent Stopping and Turning
As many as nine in ten employees would take a lower salary for more meaningful work, according to Research from BetterUp. A series of recent studies by McKinsey, paychex and others show that the desire for (or lack of) meaningful work has been the main cause of exhaustion in the past two years. For Millennial and Gen Z workers in particular, doing meaningful work is a top priority.
Making work meaningful yields enormous returns. An important meta-analysis of research shows that meaningful work leads to higher involvement, stronger involvement and job satisfaction. Employees who find their work meaningful also tend to outperform those who don’t. The good news is that you don’t have to save the world for your work to be meaningful. Any job can and should make sense with the help of a great leader.
Leaders have a huge impact on how meaningful work is for their employees. Preliminary results of a new study, which I co-authored with Zach Mercurio, Tamara Myles and Jer Clifton, of 647 full-time American workers, indicate that nearly half of an employee’s sense of purpose at work is related to what their leaders do. We’ve found a set of practices that leaders can use to help employees find meaning in their work. These practices fall into three broad domains.
Focusing on the ‘three C’s’ to make work meaningful
Leaders should focus on contribution, community and challenge – the three Cs that make work meaningful:
1. Contribution: This is the belief that one’s work is important to others, whether they are colleagues, customers, or members of the community. Leaders who show people how their work affects others create a sense of contribution. One way you can do this is by putting employees in direct contact with the people who benefit from their work. I suggest engaging a customer or business partner to share how their lives have improved as a result of the company’s efforts.
2. Community: This is the sense of belonging that comes from being able to fully participate in a community of shared values. Leaders who create authentic connections between their teams create a sense of community. A simple yet effective way to do this is to start meetings by asking everyone to share something good that happened to them in the past week. This practice enables employees to put more of themselves into work and see each other better.
3. Challenge: This is the chance to learn and develop new skills. Leaders who push people beyond their current capabilities and support their growth create a sense of challenge. Start by scheduling a development meeting with each of your employees. Simply asking how they want to grow and how you can help them get there is the foundation for meaningful development.
The three C’s have a multiplier effect, meaning they become more powerful together. It also means that missing one can erode the meaning of the other two, so leaders should focus on all three.
When work makes sense, people like to come to the office. When work makes sense, people go out of their way to collaborate with colleagues from different departments. When work makes sense, people stay and give you the best they have to offer.