Feeling connected and fulfilled at work

Five SCNetwork members engage in a back-and-forth on Bill Schiemann’s presentation




Ian Hendry: In a world that seems to be filled with so much negative energy, I appreciated Bill Schiemann’s build on Marin Seligman’s work in the field of positive psychology. The conversation brought us back to that inner human need and Schiemann’s definition of life fulfillment as achieving your dreams and creating a lifestyle that brings exceptional happiness and inner peace. The big question for the audience was whether organizations have a role in helping create that positive experience because it is extremely relevant to organizational performance.

Jan van der Hoop: Schiemann and his organization have clearly done a lot of research into what makes people and organizations tick. His ACE model (alignment, capabilities, engagement) is a useful reference point as one indicator of health, and it echoes much of the work done since the mid-1990s, when Gallup set out to study what makes up the DNA of a “great manager.”

The bottom line is people feel most connected and “fulfilled” at work, and do their best work, when four critical aspects of fit line up: fit with the manager, with the work they are assigned, with the people they spend their day with, and with the organization’s mission, vision and values. When the fit is right, it sets up a state of potential engagement that the manager, if she is on her game, can catalyze with the employee into a state of engagement.

That Schiemann’s research suggests no more than 20 per cent of the workforce feels fulfilled at work should come as no surprise; it is entirely consistent with two decades’ worth of findings regarding levels of engagement.

Many employers complain about the attitudes of “privileged” millennials and a widespread lack of loyalty in today’s workforce. I’d suggest there’s no lack of loyalty, but loyalty is reciprocal and needs to be earned. In our day, you could buy my loyalty with a paycheque, and in return you’d get my head and (most of) my heart. Today, in a different reality, where paternalism is long dead, there is little job security and people have been taught the hard way that they need to look out for their own interests. Nowadays, hearts and minds need to be won differently — with integrity, purpose, meaning and connection.

Organizations whose managers can foster those qualities will be the employers of choice.

Tracey White: I agree, Jan. Loyalty is perhaps a time-stamped concept. Individuals who entered the workforce during an era when loyalty equalled lifetime employment will fall wide of the mark in trying to apply the same standard to the workforce of today. In a rapidly changing business environment, it’s disconcerting that many, if not most, HR and management programs are products of this bygone era.

Contingent or “gig” workers are expected to make up 40 per cent of the United States workforce by 2020, according to research by TinyPulse. In Canada, we may be well on the way already. A McMaster University study conducted in 2013 classified 52 per cent of workers in the Greater Toronto-Hamilton Area as “precarious.”  Contingent employment is a fast-growing phenomenon that we don’t fully understand because reliable data is thin. Yet, we are experiencing economic changes that are reshaping the very concept of work and, with it, attitudes like loyalty.

Schiemann rightly observed that organizations can’t create an engaged workforce if large groups of people are left out of HR programs because they do not meet the prevailing definition of a “full-time employees.” Perhaps this standard too is time-stamped.

We have had many conversations at SCNetwork lately where it is clear the gig economy is not on HR’s radar. As one member remarked, “Contingent employees are out of scope for HR”; instead, these workers are managed by procurement.

By 2020, 50 per cent of the North American workforce will be millennials and the first gen-Z employees will join the labour market. The life experience of these workers does not include notions of lifetime employment, nor, if we’re honest, do employers want to return to this model.  As Schiemann said, HR needs a shift in mindset.

Paul Pittman: I remember an interview with a senior executive at a major global company who said the best people at the company would get to the top despite what people in HR do to them (I like to think he meant “for” but the wry smile suggested otherwise). How true those words were, and they have influenced my activities many times since. Schiemann, for me, is adding more understanding to this off-the-cuff remark.

Not everyone can be fulfilled in their work — not everyone has the opportunities, resources, confidence or synapse to be truly fulfilled. Some will get there without any help from a single employer and need a variety of experiences. However, as employers, we can do a pile more for those folks who perhaps don’t know what their passion is yet or perhaps don’t have all of the tools or natural resources to achieve complete work life satisfaction. We can do more to nurture their engagement. We can create environments that enable people to explore their passions and master their skills.

Perhaps we should consider our role as employer in aiming for fulfillment in the work lives of our employees — individuals capable of creating super value because they are living their passion. For everyone else, improved engagement is as much as we can achieve. We should never forget too that engagement at work can be achieved through fulfillment outside of work (Schiemann refers to this as the “whole person”). 

In addition to his organization’s work, there is a great book by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi titled Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience which talks about personal fulfillment as a means of reaching higher levels of engagement at work. We should never forget we can make work life more accessible to enable personal fulfillment in other areas that will contribute to retention.

A significant takeaway for me was how the audience of primarily HR folks responded to Schiemann’s question about what constitutes people risk. I would suggest we still don’t understand the broader financial risks that managing people poses for organizations.

White: One of the most frustrating things for me is how many HR metrics are focused on cost. As long as human labour is viewed merely as a cost to be minimized, and not as an investment with long-term growth implications, we will never understand or be able to quantify people risk. As we move to an economy where value creation depends on brainpower, the insufficiencies of current measurement tools are becoming glaringly obvious for business and the economy more broadly.

Silvia Lulka: What strikes me about Schiemann’s research is how parallel the individual’s and the organization’s journeys are, and need to be. Organizations have the lens of mission, vision, values, strategy and balancing stakeholders. Individuals have the lens of vision, values, life goals, lighthouse goals, plans and balancing elements of our lives.

The very idea that an organization needs to look at the fulfillment of the “whole persons” who make up its employee base shows the need for us, as leaders and as individuals, to continually look at what we do, why we do it, what we need to continue and what we need to change. What does loyalty mean today, and what does it mean going forward? What does being an employee mean today, and is that the best definition for the next decade? What does it mean to love and be fulfilled by your job today, and what will that look like tomorrow? 

Van der Hoop: And whose job is engagement anyway? HR needs to get out of the engagement business. It’s up to the manager and the individual to create a relationship, a context and a flow that optimizes organizational outputs and individual fulfilment. Gifted managers have done that all along; the best we can do is make sure the right people are promoted to management, and given the training and tools to manage others, and then held accountable for results.

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