Dan Pink talks about having intrinsic motivation and autonomy in his book A Whole New Mind, as well as the importance of “flow” and mastery.
All this is true, and the research seems to bear it out. However, the missing piece is often in how authentic we feel we can be while at work.
In other words, does what you do align with who you are in such a way that you rarely (if ever) feel as though you are making decisions that go against your core values?
If the answer is “no,” then that is probably a major reason why you feel stressed or unhappy in your career.
When we do things that go against who we want to be, we have to exert more energy and focus in order to be successful. The result is that we feel depleted by the end of the day, and exhausted by the end of the week. Over the course of months and years, we might even become burned out, cynical and angry. We did not set out to become these things, nor are many people aware that they are happening.
Many people complain about “too much work” but it’s interesting to think what that means. Usually it means that the work is more draining than fulfilling. Fulfilling work never feels like “work.”
If you are a manager, director or executive leader and you have employees who complain of burnout, then perhaps it is time to understand the culture you have created and whether it aligns with who your employees are. Here are some questions that we can ask ourselves to get clarity on who we are and what kind of environment we want.
1. What kind of work makes you most excited? This is perhaps one of the most important questions and one of the most misunderstood. Most of us like the results of our work: the feeling of accomplishment, sense of pride in a job well done, outperforming others. These, however, are all driven by the ego and are therefore not sustainable over time. Success is good and we should strive for it, but it isn’t fulfilling in of itself. The process has to mean something. We want to identify those moments when we feel most lit up in our job, so that we can understand what fuels us.
2. What are your core values? Core values are those things that we believe so strongly that to go against them is to almost court physical sickness. Any company that tries to accomplish big things without a clear sense of its own core values or without encouraging employees to understand and cultivate them within themselves is courting trouble. (See the current environment on Wall Street in the past decade or ENRON for details.) Sometimes also called “integrity,” this is what gives us our strength and helps us to build trust among our clients.
3. What kinds of clients do you want to have? In a perfect world, the people we do business with would not be much different from our friends. However, even if we lower that bar considerably, there are characteristics of who we want to work with that can remain consistent, regardless of the money that exchanges hands. Keep in mind that if you want your top employees in a service-oriented industry to feel empowered and engaged in their work, they have to care about the people they are serving. There are difficult clients who help us reach our best work, and then there are difficult clients who are not interested in solving problems. Make sure that you know the difference and that the majority of your clients are people who you want to see succeed.
The goal in all of this is to feel more authentic in our job. For leaders of organizations who want their top employees to stay, it will be in part because they are engaged in work that is meaningful and aligned with who they intrinsically are. Ideally, the more authentic they feel at work, the more effective they are as employees and leaders.
If you are working in a place that does not honor who you are or allow you to be your authentic self on any level, find a way out. While it is scary to make changes, the price for putting that off is often higher than we care to imagine.