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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

As the book describes it: "An abundant organization is a work setting in which individuals coordinate their aspirations and action to create meaning for themselves, value for stakeholders, and hope for humanity at large. An abundant organization is one that has enough and to spare of the things that matter most: creativity, hope, resilience, determination, resourcefulness, and leadership."

Far from being a touchy-feely endeavor, the end goal is profit. "Making meaning makes money," said Dave Ulrich in the same interview with his wife. "We've talked about this [in this interview] in the sense of affect and emotion and meaning, but let's not run away from this," he added, referring to profit as the objective. "It's not just a social agenda. Companies need to make money and making meaning will make you make money."

One possible approach that has proved successful is for company leaders to search out lower-level employees who love what they do and find meaning in their jobs and to talk to them about what keeps them motivated and pumped up, and then to aim to replicate that throughout the corporate structure. That sort of "positivism" can be taught, Dave said. "Throughout companies at all levels there are people who have those skills and it is a skill -- they've learned from parents and mentors how to find meaning in all kinds of work. This is not something that comes automatically. It's a skill that can be learned to find meaning."

Employees who lack that sort of attitude may tend to think that "work is work," Wendy said. "Some of us have not been trained how to find value and purpose in our work. We've been trained to think of work as something you just suck it up and have to do. They haven't had people who are good role models for saying, 'Isn't this fascinating,'" she said.

Often, unmotivated employees may have difficult personal lives. Some have such bad attitudes as to become "toxic employees" who can pollute organizations. "Boy, do I wish we could help those toxic employees find meaning in their work that they aren't getting in their homes," Dave said. "If work can be a positive place for those employees who feel personal toxicity and just live in a place of deficit thinking, maybe it can blend into other parts of their lives."

Some companies the Ulriches have studied do things like let employees bring dogs to work, provide gyms for workouts or any number of other things that would seem to promote happiness among employees. But that sort of thing is "hit or miss" because not everyone is made happy by the same things. And, besides, happiness isn't really the goal. "It's not just about being happy," Wendy said. "Sometimes people find meaning in the most difficult situations. It's about finding meaning in life, not how do you make them feel happy."


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