The late Paul O’Neill, who was CEO of Alcoa and Treasury Secretary of the United States, said that everyone in an organization should be able to answer “yes” to these three questions:

  1. Am I recognized for what I do?
  2. Am I treated every day with dignity and respect?
  3. Am I given the things I need to contribute to the organization in a way that brings meaning to my life?

In our first blog in this series, posted on February 21, 2023, we talked about the first question – Am I recognized for what I do? – noting that most employees say they receive meaningful recognition not enough, or even not at all. This has a negative impact on employee morale, productivity, performance, and retention. But when provided with helpful guidelines, tips, tools, and templates – all part of a solid internal communications plan – leaders can become proficient in providing recognition to their employees, thereby increasing employee engagement.

In our second blog, posted on March 8, 2023, we discussed the second question – Am I treated every day with dignity and respect? – noting that 35% of employees who left their jobs in 2021 cited feeling disrespected at work as a major reason for quitting. This is disappointing, as employees also said that being treated with respect leads to better health and well-being, greater feelings of trust and safety, and greater job satisfaction. When provided tools to build skills in respectful two-way communication, leaders can play a key role in ensuring that employees feel respected in the workplace, increasing the odds that they will be engaged in their work and stay with the company.

O’Neill’s third question – Am I given the things I need to contribute to the organization in a way that brings meaning to my life? – is, in our view, the most complex and, well, meaningful of the three questions. How, as leaders, do we begin to tackle this question? After all, isn’t meaningfulness a deeply personal and individual feeling? Don’t people find meaning in a variety of ways and settings in their lives outside of work, or instead of work, or even despite their work? Can a social worker, a nurse, a CEO, and a housekeeper all find meaning in their work in a hospital? What makes work meaningful – or not? We turned to a 2016 article in the MIT Sloan Management Review to gain some perspective on this question. This excellent article confirmed our belief that O’Neill’s third question is, indeed, the most complex. It also confirmed that the three questions are tightly interwoven and exceedingly impactful.

The authors identified several factors that contributed to people finding meaning in their work. Does their work create a sense of pride or achievement for a job well done? Does the impact of their work and the company’s purpose result in positive outcomes for others and society at large; and is there a connection between the two (“connecting the dots”)? Were they listened to and treated fairly? Were their efforts recognized and were they respected as individuals? These factors were impactful for professionals and manual workers alike.

Interestingly, and because meaningfulness is so personal and individual, the authors found that “. . . quality of leadership received virtually no mention when people described meaningful moments at work, but poor management was the top destroyer of meaningfulness.” (Emphasis added.) And the “destruction” would come when employees had this feeling: “Why am I bothering to do this?”

It begs the question: As leaders, what role can we play here? We need to ask ourselves some questions. Do we make the work our employees are performing easy or difficult to accomplish? Do we provide our employees with adequate tools, technology, and equipment? Do our processes facilitate or hinder? Do we provide the training, guidance, and mentoring our employees need and deserve?  How can we know the answers to these questions? By asking, of course, and then responding with timely and relevant actions. It’s part of the respectful two-way conversation we discussed in our previous blog. And it helps ensure a resounding “yes!” to the question, “Am I given the things I need to contribute to the organization in a way that brings meaning to my life?”

When our communication connects the dots for our employees about how their work impacts others and contributes to the higher purpose of the organization, when the resources and processes we provide our employees facilitate rather than hinder their work, and when we recognize our employees and treat them with dignity and respect, here is one question they will never have to ask themselves: “Why am I bothering to do this?”

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