Credit: Bethany Legg on Unsplash

A Failure to Engage: Evolution and Revolution at Work

A Better Work Series (part 1/3)

Human history is one of evolution and revolution of all kinds: culture, conquest, change. Given our technological progress, our daily tasks and jobs have naturally changed. What’s striking is how our attitude about work has evolved — and why.

Attitudes toward work were far from what they are today. The ancient Greeks, as well as the Hebrews and medieval Christians, viewed work as a curse. Ponos is the Greek word for work, which originated from the Latin poena, meaning sorrow. At its core, work was associated with pain and drudgery. It was the divine punishment for man’s original sin and viewed as a necessary evil.

Today, there is plenty of room for personal growth in work. We have endless opportunities to express ourselves, whether as a coffee connoisseur, street mime, or YouTube sensation. For many, making a choice is unnecessary and even paradoxical. This opportunity for self-expression is miles away from work’s origins and historical role, from biblical times all the way to the 16th century rise of the Protestant work ethic, still defining work as a sacrifice indicating moral worthiness.

Work gratification is so very different today. Ideally, we find work to be good and rewarding in and of itself, as touted by life hackers and career advice columnists. But do we find work interesting and engaging? What really happens when these expectations aren’t met?

The Employee Engagement Epidemic

I heard a story about an employee who scripted his own piece of software that made it appear on his computer as though he was working when in fact he was busy exchanging hot tamale recipes (or something equally absurd). He’s certainly not alone — many of us would rather do something other than our jobs. Small wonder that productivity (measured as global GDP per capita) has been in decline for several decades. The majority of the world’s 1 billion full-time employees — about 87% — are not engaged in their work. That’s nearly 9 out of every 10 workers.

Engagement and the Global Workplace Report

The demand for knowledge work is rising faster than ever before. Nearly half of America works in a non-routine, cognitive job, which permits more room for self-expression. We would hope that, as a result, more people are finding fulfillment in their work. Although some do find that higher purpose, especially in cultures or industries that foster it, the numbers show worker disengagement is still a global epidemic.

The Effects Beyond the Office

At last count, of the 7.5 billion people on the planet, 5.3 billion were classified by Pew Research Centre as poor or low income. How does poverty correlate with the engagement epidemic? Engaged workers are more productive, thereby improving their country’s economic health. To put it into context: 45 million Americans live below the poverty line. Employee disengagement and the resulting loss in productivity costs the American economy $350 billion per year. This works out to $1,000 for every U.S citizen — and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

The repercussions of disengagement don’t stop at the company level. Not only do engaged employees enjoy what they do more than disengaged ones — they’re also less prone to burnout and workplace accidents. Disengaged workers are more likely to take sick days, suffer from depression or anxiety, and even display negative behavior with friends and family.

Despite our increasing ability to pursue meaningful work, this epidemic unearths a deep-rooted issue in our professional work ethic and one we have yet to fully address. What worldwide economic prosperity would result if we decreased disengagement by just 10%? The potential is mind blowing. The required shift in thinking is this: finding meaning in work is no longer a luxury — it’s now a duty. Our ancestors saw work as a sacrifice that made them morally worthy. The coming generations must view work as a moral good that is worthy in and of itself.

Changing Times, Changing Mindsets

For some reason, we’re still operating on the assumption that people are only willing to work in exchange for pay. Okay, it probably has a lot to do with the economics of free market capitalism, but it’s no longer true.

When tied to religion, the spirit of hard work and progress were present in even the most mundane professions. After all, it was blessed by God. There was a deep meaning and value associated with work, irrespective of the extrinsic reward. When industrialisation came, that meaning in work focused on the returns — what having a job would provide in terms of position and pay.

Over time, these beliefs and attitudes toward work have been baked into our organisations. Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations” further set them, and they continue to affect us. Division of labor came to mean breaking work down into the smallest, most mundane activities so as to produce more, faster. In the heyday of the industrial boom, this logic admittedly held some value. But that revolution has long since ended, and we’re still trying to update our collective mindset. For so many work doesn’t work—it has broken down, because for so many it doesn’t hold significant meaning. Our organizations suffer as a result, as does society as a whole.

Poised for Growth

Psychologist Barry Schwartz aptly sums it up: “We want work that is challenging and engaging, that enables us to exercise some discretion and control over what we do, and that provides us opportunities to learn and grow. We want to work with colleagues we respect and with supervisors who respect us. Most of all, we want work that is meaningful — that makes a difference to other people and thus ennobles us in at least some small way.”

Your perception of your own work rests upon what drives you. Schwartz, together with Yale School of Management professor Amy Wrzesniewski, report that internal motivations for why we do what we do trump instrumental ones. While status and a paycheck are extrinsic or instrumental, approaching mastery and feeling challenged in your work are internal motives. You can actually stunt your professional progress if you’re driven by both internal and external motives.

Time and again, research has shown that being governed by internal motivations leads to finding meaning in work as well as long-term professional success. Even in the early 20th century, Robert Woodworth, a student of renowned philosopher and psychologist William James, proposed that we take part in activities that provide their own drive. Later, Abraham Maslow designed his hierarchy by mapping our basic deficiency and growth needs. As a self-actualising endeavour, deriving meaning from work would form the top, not the base. Edward Deci and Richard Ryan built upon this, developing the self-determination theory. Their approach to motivation rested on three innate psychological needs: 1) competence, 2) relatedness, and 3) autonomy. When these three criteria are met, we are poised to optimally grow — to find meaning.

Finding — or Creating — Meaning

For some, a lack of engagement must be addressed by changing jobs or even careers. For others, it can involve something much more subtle to transform their existing job into one they love. Professor Wrzesniewski, together with University of Michigan professor Jane E. Dutton and Wharton doctoral student Justin M. Berg, say that job crafting may just do the trick. Simply put, you take the various building blocks within your job and recombine them to better align with your talent and interests. As an example, in their study, a hospital cleaner took it upon herself to perform many activities outside of her job specifications. She would regularly dust the ceilings so patients didn’t have to stare at them or bring water to thirsty patients between nursing shift changes. She saw herself not just as a cleaner but as a caretaker. Expanding her job (within reason) allowed her to derive more meaning from her work.

The results of job crafting have led to many finding more meaning in their work. The concept is marked by a three-tiered framework:

1. Task crafting: rearranging your activities and day-to-day tasks
2. Relational crafting: reformulating social interactions
3. Cognitive crafting: fine-tuning the perception of the purpose of your work

Job crafting, when done well, entails learning how to retrofit your existing job so as to make it more compatible with your distinct passions, strengths, and values. Individuals who are persistent job crafters bring their whole selves to work. In so doing, their customers, colleagues, and their organisation as a whole reap the benefits.

The Destroyers of Meaningfulness

Sound all too easy? And what about those with positional authority, who can’t so easily adapt —like the bosses? Take Japan, where it’s sacrilegious to go home before your superior does, even if you have no work to do. In today’s economy, theory Y-styled managers are winning over theory X ones. If you’re an enabling leader then you won’t hinder your team’s effective job crafting.

Research from MIT has shown that quality of leadership is rarely mentioned when people talk about meaningful moments at work. Rather, bad management is “The destroyer of meaningfulness.” Good leaders sometimes go unnoticed, but poor ones actually sap the sense of meaning from their team. In these instances, there is often a values clash between a critical manager and the diminished employee. This kind of leadership can result in unmotivated employees, office in-fighting, and serious health issues—even premature death.

A New Necessity

The strongest indicator of your engagement is whether you believe you’re making progress towards meaningful work, a concept known as the progress principle. Of course, redesigning your job to become fully engaged doesn’t happen overnight. It happens via small wins and baby steps towards finding meaning.

As more and more companies hire hunger over talent, the job crafting strategy will prove extremely powerful from an organisational standpoint. After all, businesses cannot innovate if everyone within them remains uninspired. And it’s evident when someone is engaged in their work. Instead of saying, “I have to go to work,” they say, “I get to go to work.” Our family, friends, and colleagues all take notice of the way we feel about what we do. When we operate from a place of purpose, genuineness, and with a giving spirit, it has a positive cascading effect.


We need to stretch our boundaries, both as individuals and as organizations, and reimagine the value work holds. It’s no longer a luxury to contemplate meaning in work — it’s a necessity.


Stay tuned for Parts 2 and 3 in the Better Work Series 👊
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