Many influential people are talking about purpose, about meaningful work, and about helping others feel that they matter.
Mark Zuckerberg stated in his Harvard Commencement speech: “The challenge of our generation is creating a world where everyone has a sense of purpose.”
In a New York Times Opinion piece, the Dalai Lama asserted: “a universal human hunger [is] to be needed.”
In a recent Harvard Business Review article, The More Essential Your Job Is to Your Company, the Happier You’ll Be, the authors conclude that people in “lynchpin” positions (i.e., roles that matter most to the company’s success) are happier. The authors suggest that companies focus their engagement efforts on employees in “peripheral” (i.e., support) positions given these employees are less likely to see their work as meaningful. Said differently, when these employees go to work and ask themselves “do I matter to this company?”, they may answer “not really.” This is a crushing realization as implied by Jim Collins in his book Good to Great:
“It is impossible to have a great life unless it is a meaningful life. And it is very difficult to have a meaningful life without meaningful work.”
So the question is: How do you make employees in support positions feel that their work is meaningful … that they matter?
There are two initiatives that a head of a support group can pursue to fuel the meaning of their team members’ work and their sense of purpose: (1) establish a mission for the group and (2) identify and recognize the unique attributes that each team member provides to the group.
Establish a mission for the group
Ever since Jim Collins’ classic HBR article, Building Your Company’s Vision, companies have invested in developing a motivating mission designed to engage employees in a specific purpose. Consider these companies’ mission statements:
§ Google: “to provide access to the world’s information in one click.”
§ Nike: “to bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world.”
§ Starbucks: “to inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time.”
These missions are certainly inspiring to those in lynchpin positions who can directly link their role to the company’s mission. But what about the people in support positions like accounting, administration, payroll or the IT help desk? How can they connect their work to these missions?
I suggest the heads of support teams establish a group mission, separate from (but consistent with), the company mission, that articulates how the team fuels their internal clients’ performance. For example:
§ Accounting: to strengthen the decision-making of our [internal] clients and reinforce the integrity of our firm by efficiently, effectively and consistently reporting 100% accurate financial information.
§ Administration: to fuel the productivity of our [internal] clients by providing them services which increase their effectiveness, efficiency or well-being at work.
§ Payroll: to provide our [internal] clients peace of mind by consistently processing pay information accurately and on time, and by quickly resolving client issues through attentive and empathetic client service.
§ Help Desk: to maximize our [internal] clients’ capacity to perform through rapid, courteous and enduring IT problem resolution.
By viewing those in lynchpin positions as clients, and perceiving their job as a critical service to these clients, team members can feel a keener sense of purpose and pride in what they do. In addition, managers can more easily connect their team members’ day-to-day work to the mission of the group, and this connection will help the team realize their work matters, and therefore they matter.
Recognize the unique contributions team members bring to the group
While employees want to matter to the company, they also want to matter to people with whom they work. Knowing others appreciate what they bring to the table makes employees feel they are valued and that they matter.
Managers should identify unique attributes that each team member brings to the group, and recognize her for it regularly. For example, a specific team member may bring one or more of the following attributes to the group: a calming presence, a positive disposition, a new way of approaching a task or problem, a can-do attitude, a willingness to help others who are struggling, a strong work ethic. By recognizing a unique attribute and the value it brings to a specific initiative or situation, managers help employees feel that they matter.
And if you are a lynchpin professional reading this, embrace this notion. Make the effort to recognize the value that support people provide to the company, and to you personally. Tell them regularly why they are important – it can make a meaningful difference in how they view their work, and therefore how they view themselves.
We all matter, and we all need to know that we do. Play your part in making people feel purposeful and valued.