What gives you a sense of fulfillment? 

For me, the question evokes a lot of little vignettes before any articulate answer. It’s the feeling of progress I get when I train for a big run. It’s cooking all day to share an elaborate Italian feast with friends. It’s the thrill of working on a high-performing team, or the creative jolt I get taking an abstract idea from germination to reality. I’m fortunate to have a variety of fulfillment sources in my life, and grateful that my paid work contributes something to that overall sense of purpose. If I can help it, I won’t settle for a job that offers anything less.

According to a study published in late 2018 by PriceWaterhouseCoopers, I’m not alone. In a survey of over 2,000 full-time workers, seven out of ten would consider an offer for more fulfilling work, with one in three willing to consider lower pay. Fulfilled employees also “plan to stay nearly three years longer in total at their current company than their unfulfilled counterparts.” We are living in a new era, one where employees expect more than ever from that large swath of life they trade to an employer. Purpose is the new value proposition. And if you thought engagement was hard to measure, wait until you get a load of meaning.

What’s driving these evolving employee expectations? 

Could it have something to do with the erosion of other traditional areas of fulfillment? Americans are more religiously unaffiliated, more socially isolated, and having children later. For salaried professionals, a relatively affluent demographic in the global economy, the shift coincides with a consumer trend away from passive experiences toward more transformational, participatory experiences. The PWC article would also put artificial intelligence, neuroscience and positive psychology in the mix of contributing factors. Are these social, economic, and technological trends increasing the portion of our purpose “tank” we expect to fill at work? I think it’s a fascinating question, but for now I’ll leave it to more qualified sociologists, philosophers, and historians. Suffice it to say, the demand for purpose is growing. As leaders and managers, we must respond.

It’s tempting to think about employee fulfillment as beyond the control of the organization: something every individual has to figure out and pursue for themselves. To a large extent, that’s true. According to the PWC study, employees agree. 82% believe they are personally accountable for their own sense of fulfillment, and 42% see themselves as the biggest barrier to a fulfilling work experience. This makes intuitive sense. Employees are human beings, with complex priorities and interests. They may take meaning in writing music, throwing pottery, or volunteering in their community. They take responsibility for engaging life’s purpose every day, well before they walk into the office, so of course they feel some responsibility for finding the intersection between these intrinsic motivators and a job society values enough to provide a paycheck.

However, that’s not the whole picture. While employees take primary responsibility for their own fulfillment, leadership also has a big influence on the experience of meaning in a workplace. Much has been said about employees quitting bosses, not jobs, so it may come as some surprise to learn that 31% of PWC respondents thought senior leadership was the biggest blockade to a meaningful experience, while just 16% cited their direct manager. Fulfillment is undoubtedly a personal journey, but leaders are struggling to help employees spot the intersection between organizational needs and their personal path. That may not be for lack of desire to help. Most leaders don’t wake up each morning with the conscious intention of oppressing employees’ ability to derive meaning from work. More likely, it’s the systems and culture leaders cultivate (intentionally or unintentionally) that either invigorate or hamper an organization’s capacity for purpose-driven work.

Where does workplace fulfillment come from?

As we try to grow the capacity of a workplace to support meaningful work, we need not accommodate every experience an employee finds fulfilling. Nor do I believe we should only recruit or expect fanatics who center their fulfillment completely in the workplace. Still, there is a lot of room to rethink and redesign the organization to accommodate different motivators. The PWC report offers a broad framework, and breaks the concept of workplace fulfillment into three categories: relationships, impact, and growth. The report offers some concrete programs and practices in each of these spaces. While there is nothing wrong with the article’s suggestions–they offer strong ways to begin this journey–I found some of their word choices limited possibility. In describing ways to boost meaningful work through impact, the report uses verbs like “Share an end-to-end view of how everyone’s piece fits into the bigger picture,” and “Define crystal clear objectives.” These unidirectional verbs imply an organization that has already prepared the big picture for employees. In this universe, the leader’s role is to more effectively disseminate that vision downward. They can improve as leaders through better communication and context setting about the story of impact. While these are truly important skills in which many leaders could stand to improve, the word choice skates past the truly transformational opportunity.

For most organizations, the richest source of relationship building, growth, and impact is precisely the opportunity to engage with big questions of “why” and “how.” Yet, so often leadership guards that resource in closed-door meetings and strategy sessions. Leaders may own the ultimate responsibility and consequences for organizational decisions, and that’s appropriate in most traditional corporate structures. But to the extent leaders hoard opportunities to grapple with questions of “how” and “why,” they are depriving the workplace of a rich resource for fulfillment and ideas. Granted, this is often more difficult and delicate than setting context or telling a compelling story about collective impact. It requires planning, and the mindset of a leader-as-educator. And true, not every employee cares to engage with those questions. But how many more employees will be retained, new business lines generated, missteps prevented, and young leaders mentored when companies commit to finding ways for front-line employees to work more deeply?

Where to begin?

A more participatory workplace doesn’t emerge overnight, or rapidly. Often, it starts with a few opportunities to engage with work more meaningfully. That may include a few hours of protected time each week to work on a creative design thinking brief with an interdisciplinary team. It could mean co-creating a company philosophy, or workplace norms and policies. Eventually, it could mean formal opportunities for front-line employees to contribute to higher order conversations around product development, budgeting, or organization goals. These opportunities will stay relegated to token programs unless leadership commits to a system that maximizes invitations to participate in more creative, meaningful aspects of the work. Done well, a more participatory workplace yields rewards for the company as well as the employee, including increased creativity, higher output, improved decision making, and stronger retention rates. 

There’s one more benefit to working toward more fulfilling workplaces, albeit one I’ve been encouraged by more than a few colleagues to keep to myself in lieu of the tangible business benefits above. That is: it’s the right thing to do. When we expand the freedom of others to create and meaningfully participate, we expand our own freedom. Workplace systems that appreciate the intersection between fulfillment and work will inherently be more inclusive, equitable, and humanistic than the rigid systems we’ve inherited from the industrial age, which were designed for efficiency.

What’s next?

How do we quantify an abstract concept like fulfillment, or measure success? How can we adapt measures and strategies for employees who are inevitably going to feel fulfilled through different types of activities, and who expect different levels of fulfillment from work (including those who are just there for the paycheck)? Are there concrete offerings, or universal hallmarks that can help any organization at least step toward a more participatory system? Lately, I have been on a journey to answer these questions, in the interest of fostering a better work culture at my current job alongside other senior leaders, but also in the interest of actualizing my own personal values. Through a combination of experience and study, I’ve come across some essential elements that predict whether invitations to participate will become strong participatory ecosystems, or crash and fail. In the next few weeks, I’ll share what I’ve found through a series of articles. If you’re a leader interested in moving–incrementally or dramatically–to a more fulfilling workplace culture, I hope you’ll stay tuned.

In the spirit of participation, I want to learn from you too. Do you have a story about an invitation to participate that connected with employees? Have you been in a room where an invitation to participate really crashed and burned? I’d love to hear about it, and to know if you’re open to being interviewed as part of an article. You can connect with me on LinkedIn, email me at [email protected], or tweet @nmarzano.

Director of Education at Society of Hospital Medicine

Nick is a lifelong learner with over 15 years’ experience in education and organizational leadership. Currently, he brings those very alliterative traits to bear as Director of Education for the Society of Hospital Medicine. He also serves as director on several nonprofit boards, and consults with organizations to design more engaging events and strategic processes. He welcomes your new ideas, challenging thoughts, and banter on Twitter @nmarzano.

Nick is a lifelong learner with over 15 years’ experience in education and organizational leadership. Currently, he brings those very alliterative traits to bear as Director of Education for the Society of Hospital Medicine. He also serves as director on several nonprofit boards, and consults with organizations to design more engaging events and strategic processes. He welcomes your new ideas, challenging thoughts, and banter on Twitter @nmarzano.

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