Making Work Great Again

It’s said that while working on restoring London’s St. Paul’s cathedral after the great fire of 1666, Christopher Wren, the famed 17th century architect encountered two bricklayers laboring on the outer wall of the building. The first bricklayer was seemingly uninterested in his work and going through the motions. The second bricklayer caught Wren’s eye because he was thoroughly absorbed in his task.

Wren approached each of the workers, introduced himself, and asked:
“What are you doing?”

The first bricklayer stopped working, looked at him quizzically and replied:
“What does it look like I’m doing? I’m laying bricks.”

The second bricklayer answered:
“I am building a beautiful church.”

Having purpose is one of our most important human needs. With it, even the mundane becomes extraordinary. To paraphrase Nietzsche, “He who has a why, can bear almost any how.”

As leaders, it is our job to link employees’ tasks with a larger mission. In so doing, like the second bricklayer, we can spark discretionary effort in others (i.e., going the extra distance). Research shows that connecting employees’ work to concepts that matter to them increases engagement, satisfaction, and productivity.

Just how much does a feeling of purpose impact productivity? To find out, psychologist Adam Grant and his team set up an experiment with a university’s call/donation center (not the most exciting job). They had callers meet a student whose scholarship was paid for thanks to their efforts. Callers listened to the student speak for just five minutes, then researchers measured the impact on their work. Here’s what they found:

One month later:
142% increase in time spent on the phone weekly
171% increase in money raised weekly

Two months later:
400% increase in money raised

This study brings to light not only the importance of purpose but also the value of having (positive) direct contact with external and internal users. If we are going to care about our work, we have to see that others care about it too.

To bring a greater sense of purpose to your organization, get in the habit of asking the following questions:
– What is the beautiful thing we are all building?
– How might we connect it to employees’ day-to-day responsibilities?
– What stories make our mission and vision more clear and inspiring?
– What aspect of the work does each employee find most meaningful? (If it isn’t the company mission, maybe their sense of purpose comes from having a positive impact on customers, coworkers, or even on their own career growth.)
– How might we create more opportunities for employees to see how they are benefiting others?

And while you’re at it, take the time to assess your own sense of purpose. What is the beautiful thing you are most eager to build in your organization?

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