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Human Spirit and Work

The mission to find meaning in work is not a recent phenomenon. The human relation movement, originated in the 1930’s Hawthorne studies,12 was originally interested in employee happiness at work. This was a reaction to the hard edge of scientific management. In the past few decades, however, the mindboggling transformation in Western society and the rise of the knowledge worker have rekindled enthusiasm for finding meaning in work. What exactly do I mean by human spirit and work? How is it different from job satisfaction? And why is spirituality at work important now?

For starters, human spirit is not referring to some kind of religious conversion, or getting people to buy into a basic belief system. In essence, what it means is people partially or fully having their spiritual needs nourished through the work they do. The concept of human spirit and work refers to a sense of purpose and meaning experienced through work. It’s basically about gaining—not losing—a sense of self-esteem from work. This self-worth goes beyond being satisfied and enjoying the extrinsic rewards received in exchange for a high standard of performance. Human spirit and work is concerned with the immersion of one’s human spirit in their vocation. Sustaining an individual’s spirit at work can have a positive impact in so many ways, including work performance.

I think there are several reasons for the growing appetite of finding purpose and meaning from work. First, the employee now—more than ever before in history—feels alienated from their workplace. Relentless organizational restructuring and downsizing, reengineering, and layoffs; commonplace in the past few decades, demoralize employees—mainly those who lose their job! Throw into the mix the growing inequality of wages, and rising disengagement that shows up in numerous engagement survey results around the world. People yearn for a more humanizing workplace.

Second, isn’t it ironic that we’ve never been more connected digitally and yet—at a human level—we have never been so disconnected? We can, at a click of a button, connect with someone in the far flung regions of the world in seconds. This digital connectivity and the wonderful benefits it brings is a relatively recent phenomenon. But inversely, there’s been a rapid decline in human connectivity within our communities. We don’t know our neighbors, let alone who lives across the road. We have no idea who services our car, let alone who serves us at the corner store. Yet, human beings have a deep hunger for human connection, which is deeper than “connecting” with friends on Facebook. So the workplace can—and does, to a certain extent—fill this void.

Today’s workplace—despite our feelings of emotional isolation—is a principle source of community. The decline in Western society of neighborhoods, churches, civic groups, and extended families as the traditional sources of emotional attachment are being somewhat replaced by the workplace community. For many people, the workplace provides the only consistent link to other people and to the human needs of connection and contribution.

Third, our digital connectivity doubtlessly brings with it lots of wonderful benefits. We become exposed to more ideas, philosophies, and perspectives than ever before in history. Eastern philosophies are no longer as mysterious to Westerners. Eastern philosophies have encouraged Westerners to look at alternative forms of spirituality. There is growing curiosity in Buddhism and Confucianism, for instance. Zen Buddhism and Confucianism encourage practices such as meditation and emphasize values of loyalty to one’s group. This way of thinking is really about discovering one’s spiritual center in any activity. Ideas such as these are finding greater acceptance and application in Western society. These time-honored beliefs are shaping the way we think about our lives and the meaning of the work we do.

With a large slice of the workforce contemplating retirement and about to depart the workforce, baby boomers are reflecting on their legacy and the meaning of their lives. As aging baby boomers move closer to life’s greatest certainty—death—they naturally have a growing interest in contemplating life’s meaning. I know I do! This reflection brings with it a concentration on the contributions people make (or don’t make) in their working lives.

Fourth, escalating global competition has, in the past two decades, shifted attention from machines to people as the primary source of competitive edge. Technological tools are now a commodity, easily accessible, and no longer the differentiator between competing enterprises they once were. High-performing people are in great demand worldwide and across all industries. The relentless pressure of global competition has escalated the value of people’s creative energy; thinking outside the box is the new paradigm. Harnessing and maximizing people’s ideas and creativity involves the collaboration of head and heart; innovative thinking is a rich source of adaptive advantage.

Yet as “new capitalism” changes the conditions of work, the individuals’ connection to the organization is more tenuous. The acceleration of change and mounting uncertainty is turning work and the workplace into a place of considerable insecurity. Where work was once a stable and predictable pillar in one’s life, today people are changing jobs as fast as they can surf the net for new opportunities. Job security is a romantic memory of a bygone age.

People want and need more from work than just a job. But instead, people are told there is “no long-term.” The widening gulf between turmoil in the marketplace and the growing need for what famous psychologist Abraham Maslow describes as self-actualization, is causing great stress in workplaces everywhere. On the one hand, the trends in Western society for the humanization of the workplace heighten the hunger for meaningful working environments. But on the other hand, marketplace volatility makes it ever more challenging for employees and employers to respectively seek and provide meaningful work. Perhaps this extending gulf may partially explain the continual practice of using extrinsic motivational tools to keep the employee satisfied?

Extrinsic rewards are nevertheless less effective than previously thought. And there’s no doubting that people want more from their work than the promise of bonuses. There are opportunities to bridge this widening gap. Work promises more than a source of income; it’s potentially a vehicle for fostering personal growth, well-being, and purpose for greater numbers of people.

When external rewards are used, like bonuses, to fuel better performance, it ironically takes the employee’s attention off the work the reward is designed to improve. How can this be? The promise of a bonus shifts the employee’s focus from the task to the prize. In other words, the work becomes the means to the end result: a reward. Refer back to the research at the beginning of this chapter; extrinsic rewards can reduce, not increase performance. With the bonus top-of-mind, it’s unsurprisingly common for employees to cut corners, do whatever it takes, or even cheat to get their hands on the prize. As well intended as they are—and as effective as they can sometimes be—extrinsic rewards can back-fire and be counterproductive too.

The idea of using monetary incentives to induce greater performance is deeply rooted in our psyche. Workers were once viewed as a vital cog in the factory machine. Bonus pay was issued to workers who performed the right work, the right way, within the right timeframe. Worker conformity was part of the machinery of the factory. The carrot and the stick were the levers to reinforce orthodoxy. Today, we perpetuate this approach; we try to motivate employees with a suite of rewards and the occasional sanction. Little has changed in the way we kindle performance, even though the work we do is entirely different.

The underlying belief is that the best—some would say, the only—way to enforce performance is to reward and punish work behaviors (or lack of behaviors). But if a job’s only real purpose is to receive a wage and the occasional bonus without any real sense of freedom and self-sufficiency, or opportunities to grow and develop, work can’t promote the employee’s well-being past paying the bills. Though an employee may feel satisfied with this arrangement, it’s hardly likely to lead to inspired work performance. We need a new game plan.

So what’s the solution to this worn-out performance management practice of using extrinsic sources of motivation to enhance employee performance?

Dan Pink makes a compelling argument for using intrinsic rather than extrinsic motivation strategies to tap people’s human spirit. Pink says it is time to move past the carrot and stick. True motivation he claims, comes from our intrinsic or internal belief in what we do. Instead of attempting to control work productivity with extrinsic rewards and sanctions, the work itself is the often an untapped source of self-motivation. But how can people find stimulation in their job when a large portion of what we do at work is drudgery?

Pink claims the three drivers of human endeavor are autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Superior performance is a natural consequence of these three innate human tendencies. These internal human drivers, when present in any activity—work-related or otherwise—tap into our human spirit. Work that has the opportunity to exercise these intrinsic motivational forces connects the human spirit with work.

Let’s look at autonomy, mastery, and purpose and some practical implications for enhancing performance. Briefly, autonomy is our desire to be self-directed. Mastery is our urge to get better and better at what we do. And purpose is our thirst to be part of something larger than ourselves. This is the essence of intrinsic motivation.

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