Engaging Work: What It Is and How To Find It

How’s work?

Considering how much time we spend there, it’s an important question.

When our work is vital, engaging, and going well, it gives a boost to our entire life.

The opposite is true, too.

For a number of years, the polling company Gallup has studied the level of engagement of Americans at work. They’ve found that roughly 70% of us are ‘not engaged’ or ‘actively disengaged’ at work.

That’s another way of saying that many of us are bored.

It’s one thing to have an experience of boredom at work. We’ve probably all been there, at some time, in some job we’ve had. It’s another thing for boredom to be a regular part of our work life.

Over time the cost of disengagement adds up. The Gallup article said that non-engaged workers are less productive, less vigilant, and more likely to miss work.

And that’s only one view of the situation — from the company’s perspective. We could also take a view that centers on the non-engaged workers themselves. What does it mean for them personally?

From this perspective we see a loss of hope, and a resulting tendency to misdirect our focus onto such areas as office gossip, avoidance strategies, and breaks from work.

Engaged at Work

If many of us are bored at work, what’s at the other end of the spectrum?

The word we can use comes from the article — engaged. An engaged worker is the opposite of bored.

But what does it mean to be engaged at work?

I believe there are three aspects:

Engaging work is work that challenges us to use our particular capacities to accomplish a meaningful purpose.

1. Challenged

Think about a time you felt challenged to accomplish something. Maybe it was to meet a goal at work, or perhaps it was an objective you set for yourself.

When we’re challenged, it stretches us. It calls out our abilities in support of a goal we’re not sure we can reach. A challenge invites us into the tension of uncertainty.

Are you challenged at work?

2. Using Your Particular Skills

Another vital part of being engaged at work comes through using our particular gifts and skills.

To an extent, each of us is divided at our current job. Some of the time we use our strengths, and sometimes we do things that are outside our skill set.

A good goal is to spend the great majority of your time at work using skills that come naturally. Not all, but nearly.

Finding this balance takes intention. The first step is to know what your gifts are. If you have ever taken a career skills assessment, you are in the fortunate minority. If not, and you are feeling unengaged at work, why not look into it?

One great skills assessment comes through the Life Gifts section of the LifeKeys workbook. StrengthsFinder is another option for understanding your areas of greatest ability. Sokanu, though not explicitly a tool for finding natural skills, can help you uncover them in an indirect way.

Being stretched through challenge and working in our natural capacities are both important. However, one more core ingredient is needed to create engaging work.

3. A Meaningful Purpose

Simon Sinek once observed about professional employees that, if you ask us What our company does, nearly every one of us can tell you. Fewer, he said, can tell you How the company does what it does. And even fewer still could explain Why the company does it.

In other words, not many of us are closely in touch with the motivation for our work. We know what we do, but may struggle to explain why it’s important.

For the person seeking engaging work, this is not good enough. We need to know the reason for our work. Without knowing the purpose, we can’t connect deeply with what we do, because we’re just not sure it’s that important.

Think about your first job search out of school. We might say that when we’re first looking for work, our primary focus is on meeting basic needs, such as providing food, shelter, and so on.

But over time, we may come to see that even if those needs are met through our work, that by itself doesn’t create a lively, purpose-filled job.

To move toward engagement with our work, we need to look to higher levels of purpose and significance.

What does it mean to work in a purposeful way?

Think about what your values are — the things that are important to you. They might include traits like Efficiency, or Authenticity, or Peace, or Accuracy.

When your work lines up with your values, the outcome of your work is to create more of what matters to you in the world.

For example, someone who values Dignity would likely experience a strong sense of purpose defending and supporting prisoners, or the elderly, or those with serious illnesses.

A person who valued Financial Security would likely find fulfillment advising and guiding others into financially secure lives of their own.

Creating and inspiring others to create would be meaningful work for someone with a value of Artistic Expression.

The test of purposeful work is this: does it create what you value?

Choosing work we agree with is a powerful step toward being engaged.

And yet, when we’re evaluating a job opportunity, how many of us look carefully to see if there is alignment between the company’s mission and our own?

One reason I’ve avoided this step in the past is because it’s uncomfortable. If everything else about the position seems good — it fits my background, the boss is supportive, the work pays well, etc. — why start raising questions about vision?

We also might skip this step because no one else seems to be doing it! If we do put strong emphasis on aligning values between ourselves and a potential employer, it might make a strange first impression.

Finally, when we agree to work that doesn’t fit our values, there can be an element of fear involved. We may think that if we don’t take a particular job, we won’t be able to meet our needs.

No matter the reasons we might avoid it, the fact remains that finding work we think is meaningful is a strong contributor to being engaged at work.

Choosing a New Direction

Wherever we currently find ourselves on the spectrum of being engaged or not, we have a wonderful chance to make a change.

Say you’re feeling drawn to work that does suit you — to work that engages you and that you are called to do.

There are concrete steps you can take to move in that direction. The first set of steps involve knowing yourself, and the second set is about knowing how to connect your design with the world around you.

Know Yourself: Life Gifts and Values

Your life gifts are those activities that come naturally to you, and that you find enjoyable. To find out what those areas are, try this exercise:

1. Thinking about your week, and make a list of all the skills you use during it (if you have trouble thinking of skills, look here to jumpstart ideas).

2. Ask each skill on your list two questions:

Does it come naturally?

Do I enjoy it?

3. Make a second list of the skills that get a ‘Yes’ for both questions. Of all the skills you use, these are the ones you will want to use more often in your work.

Our gifts help us know what work to do, and our values, which we’ll look into now, show us why we would want to do it.

It may seem strange that we would need help knowing what matters most to us. Aren’t our values deeply held, built-in convictions that guide us all the time?

It’s true our values are innate qualities, and that they influence our choices, whether we’re aware of them or not. Yet I’ve learned there’s a difference between unconsciously being guided by our values, and consciously being able to name them.

The person who can name his or her values is like someone with a practiced elevator speech. Being able to articulate our values helps us connect with better-fitting opportunities. It gives us an advantage in finding the right environments to work in and people to work with.

This values exercise can help bring what may have existed below the level of your conscious awareness up to the surface:

1. Start with a nice long list of core values (one example of such a list here)

2. Add any values you’d like that aren’t yet on the list.

3. Write the values on a piece of paper so that each one has a bit of space.

4. Cut the paper into slips, each one containing one core value.

5. Put the slips face-up on a table or desk.

6. Sort the values, sliding the ones most important to you toward the top.

7. Focus on the top of the emerging list — your top 5–8 values. These are the ones you will want to commit to memory and put to use.

Your Gifts and Values at Work

When you know and can articulate your values, you’re in position to begin looking out — out at the opportunities around you. These are the jobs, workplaces, and people that align with the direction your values and skills point.

During your search, think in terms of ‘engaging work’: challenging work where you can use your natural gifts to do what’s important to you. You may benefit from working backwards — looking first for a values fit, then an opportunity to use your particular skills, and finally an environment that challenges you toward being your best.

Over your career, this search will evolve. Someone just starting out will often have a different sense of what matters at work compared to someone with decades of experience. Your skills will develop. You’ll discover a new ability, or a new type of work you enjoy.

It’s important to keep a fresh sense of calling that recognizes these changes.

The story of the 70% of Americans who are disengaged at work doesn’t have to be true for you. You can learn what you value, what your natural skills are, and how to put them into action.

When you find work that draws out your best in support of a purpose that matters to you, you won’t want to go back.

What’s one project or task you’ve accomplished where you were fully engaged in what you were doing? How can the elements of that experience play a more prominent part in your work?

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I’m an author, learner, and career-changer.

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