Forcing staff to find ‘meaning’ in work is counter-productive: Study

NHRDN - Mumbai Chapter Forcing staff to find 'meaning' in work is counter-productive: Study

Employers all around the globe are finding unique and effective ways to keep their employees engaged. A common objective of such engagement policies is to help employees really understand the organisational values, help them find happiness and meaning in their by working by establishing its support to a cause or linking to a bigger purpose. But a recent study claims that such objectives are rendered ineffective if forced, and may actually produce the exact opposite of the desired result.

The study, published in Human Resource Management Review journal, has been authored by Catherine Bailey, professor at University of Sussex, and co-authored by Adrian Madden, senior lecturer at University of Greenwich, Amanda Shantz, professor at University of Greenwich, Kerstin Alfes, professor at ESCP Europe, and Emma Soane, assistant professor at London School of Economics and Political Science. The study concluded that strategies designed to manipulate employees into finding meaning in their work can actually provoke them to look for new jobs. The authors of the study discovered two types of actions taken by employers to induce meaningfulness in the work done by their employees: surface existential acting and deep existential acting. The former is a situation “when employees act in line with expectations at work, even if their true values and beliefs are different” whereas deep existential acting is “when workers attempt to alter their own sense of what is meaningful in order to more closely align with their employer’s wishes”. The study says that both these types can cause issues for organisations and individuals. 

The study explains that when employees feel the extra encouragement and motivation, by their employers to help them find meaning in work, is either self-serving or superficial or incoherent; they feel compelled to act as if they find meaning in their work, even if they do not. Catherine Bailey, lead author of the study explains,

This may be for career advancement, the wish to feel good about oneself or the fear of negative outcomes, such as job loss, stigma or career blocking. But faking it in this way, pretending that they believe things that they do not, for instance, takes a huge amount of emotional resource and can leave people exhausted, burnt out or wanting to quit.” 

The study holds immense relevance as it discusses the impact of poorly executed management strategies that are otherwise supposed to create a dedicated, passionate and productive workforce. With a renewed focus on ensuring employee well-being, employers are trying to engage with their employees using new and varied techniques, with the ulterior motive of ensuring that they find their work and job meaningful, and stay passionate and excited about the work they do. However, since this is a relatively new domain for HR professionals and management, they need to be careful, in designing and implementing such strategies. Nudging employees to find meaning in their work, for the sake of it; with the sole expectation that this will increase productivity, couldn’t be more wrong a notion. 

But what is the way to work around the challenge then? The authors of the study say,

HR professionals should consider the factors that are likely to give rise to forms of organizational acting, such as reward systems that emphasize ‘fitting in’, and structures and systems that allow little room for individual choice, voice and discretion, and explore the extent to which these are true of their organizations… Ensuring that line managers are appropriately trained and developed to help employees find their work genuinely meaningful should be the corner piece of a meaningfulness management strategy.”

At the end of the day, if meaning has to be sought in the work that is done, it has to be done with sincerity and thoughtfulness, and if employers want to show that they care about employees, there is no other way, but to genuinely care for them. Poor execution and misdirected management will only add to the woe of misplaced intention, in case of meaningfulness management strategy, hence, it is important you ask ‘Why?’, at each and every step of the policy, as much as you ask ‘What’ and ‘How’.

Source: People Matters

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