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Book explores the meaning of work

Nancy Weil | June 7, 2010
A new book aims to help employees find, and maintain, purpose in their jobs, no matter what those are

BOSTON, 4 JUNE 2010 - As the economy eases out of the recession, employees who weathered the long months of layoffs and cutbacks face the challenge of overcoming the attendant "psychological recession" that many have fallen into, say the authors of a new book about the importance of finding meaning in work.

"Fear is sort of inimical to meaning and when we are afraid we get locked down in survival mode and it's hard to do the stepping back and seeing that what we do has meaning," said Wendy Ulrich, who with her husband Dave Ulrich wrote "The Why of Work: How Great Leaders Build Abundant Organizations That Win," which was just published by McGraw Hill.

Survival mode leads to "primal thinking" and "that's not the part of our brain that we use when we're trying to understand things from a meaning perspective," she said in a recent phone interview. "Part of it is recognizing this is a scary time that has knocked out people's sense of security and what brings meaning to their lives." Cutbacks and layoffs lead to longer work hours and coupled with other ripple effects of the recession "can be quite threatening to our sense of meaning," she added.

Now is the time, though, for many employees and company leaders to cultivate a sense of survival: "We outran the bear. Let's stop and take a breath and say, 'Where do we regroup and invest in that higher-level thinking,'" she said. Even in situations where there is still the danger of layoffs (Hewlett-Packard being a prime recent IT example) and other reorganization that will negatively affect workers, it's exhausting to keep having the sense of running from danger. "You've got to stop," she advised.

Wendy Ulrich has been a psychologist for more than 20 years and founded the Sixteen Stones Center for Growth in Utah, which specializes in seminar-retreats focused on relationships, creating what is called an "abundant life," which involves discovering meaning, creativity and purpose even in times that are difficult for whatever reason. Dave Ulrich is an expert in building organization capabilities such as systems, processes and cultures. He also coaches leaders of organizations with the aim of helping them to unlock the ability of employees to find meaning in their work, no matter what jobs they do. He is a professor at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. They have studied companies and workers, talked to thousands of employees, customers and C-level executives at a range of businesses to arrive at the "why" of work, the ways in which people find and maintain meaning in their jobs.

With those backgrounds, their book is a mix of psychology, the latest thinking in business management and related processes, and areas such as motivational techniques. It includes checklists and questionnaires meant to help employees at all manner of companies create action plans for how to develop and maintain a sense of meaning and purpose in their work. The techniques could be used by leaders, including those who head IT departments, to help their employees and by the employees to help themselves. The idea is that companies, no matter their size, that foster a sense of meaning in the work of employees will become what the Ulriches call "abundant organizations," with workers who are motivated and productive.


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