All of them wept like a child from happiness and excitement.
In the 1950s, the Bhakra-Nangal dam was called the “temple of Modern India.”
One day, a tunnel-blasting exercise went horribly wrong. It caused a landslide that trapped nine workers. People tried fervently to free them without any success.
When everyone lost hope, a junior engineer devised a desperate plan. The engineers and laborers worked all night and managed to rescue the men by morning.
The senior engineers’ reaction was unexpected. They wept from excitement and happiness. Everyone embraced the junior engineer.
It was an unforgettable day. Not just for the engineers but also their families who witnessed a different side to their generally-stoic fathers, husbands, and sons.
This wasn’t an isolated incident that turned those men into boys. They often returned home covered in mud, their files covered with dust. And they loved it!
Working on a project of such magnitude filled them with a sense of meaning and achievement. No one had all the answers. Yet, they took quick and clean decisions each day.
While they measured their performance on previous projects by how happy their bosses were, this project made them measure performance in terms of results.
There’s something deeply romantic about feeling inspired to do great things that impact the world and ourselves.
How to inspire people to do great things
All leaders want their people to work on their version of the Bhakra project. But they repeatedly face two frustrating challenges.
First, they struggle to find and retain talent. Employees (especially millennials) seem to switch jobs at the drop of a hat for tiny pay hikes. Yikes!
Second, leaders struggle to foster the founder’s mentality: people taking charge rather than passing the buck.
Such challenges lead to other problems. Like increased costs to hire and train people, delays in shipping new products or features, losing customers and failing to keep up with the competition.
It’s easy to pillory employees for irresponsible behavior like job-hopping and lacking ownership. But it’s also unfair.
The way people live and work today has undergone a tectonic shift from until a decade ago.
Yet, organizations function as if they’re frozen in time. They publicly speak about the importance of change but encourage conformity within their organizations. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
The result is that everyone remains busy, but for the wrong reasons. Directors are busy building personal wealth, middle managers are busy micro-managing people, and the junior staff is busy pleasing their bosses.
Such companies get disrupted faster than they imagine. And nobody knows what to do when the competition comes for their jugular, except blame market conditions.
But companies don’t fail because of external conditions. In fact, 85% of executives believe that internal factors cause challenges in their companies more than external ones.
Most internal challenges arise because a critical aspect often goes missing: purpose.
What purpose at work means
The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well. — Ralph Waldo Emerson
Happiness in life is not an end in itself. It’s a byproduct of compassion, feeling useful, and making a difference.
Likewise, happiness at work is a byproduct of purpose: measuring achievements through results rather than how happy the boss is.
People who discover meaning at work:
- Will accept lower salaries in exchange for more autonomy.
- Are 69% less likely to quit their jobs within the next six months.
- Last 7.4 months longer than employees who don’t find their work meaningful.
In quantifiable terms, companies save an average of $6.43 million per 10,000 employees. At a time when every penny on the balance sheet counts, $6.43 million is a massive figure!
This is in sharp contrast with what leaders assume: that people are self-interested and motivated purely by money and designations.
Given the benefits of helping people find purpose at work, how can you imbue it in your organization?
Here are three steps.
a. Make your people meet customers.
At a university, fundraising callers had a thankless job: to convince alumni to donate money for funding scholarships. The job entailed repetitive work, low autonomy, and rude customers.
In a typical three-month period, the entire staff would quit, creating exorbitant hiring and training costs.
To improve results, Adam Grant invited a scholarship recipient to speak with a team of telecalling fundraisers. In five minutes, the student described how the callers’ work had funded his scholarship, impacted his life, and how much he appreciated their effort.
Lo and behold! In the next month, the telecallers spent 142% more time making calls and raised 171% more revenue. Another group doubled its calls and increased its average revenue collection by more than 400%!
The groups that students didn’t visit, showed no change in performance.
Managers try to inspire people by sharing how their work impacts customers’ lives. But such messages are more powerful when they come from the people best suited for the role — customers themselves.
Encourage people from every department to step outside the building, engage with customers, and provide suggestions for improvement.
Such an exercise will motivate people intrinsically. Regardless of the department, they’ll work for customers’ success rather than their own systems, and feel a sense of purpose.
Software developers will write code with customers’ goals in mind. Recruiters will look for customer-centric traits while screening candidates. The operations team will value accuracy and speed while fulfilling orders.
Improved Customer Satisfaction scores will improve Employee Satisfaction scores (even if they come at the expense of Boss Satisfaction scores).
b. Let your people rebel.
People want directions on where they’re going, not micro-directions on how to get there. — Simon Sinek
As a corporate slave, I struggled to stay engaged. My suggestions were always shot down, even when I backed them with solid data.
My bosses were upset that I wasn’t normal. They expected me to leave a good chunk of my real self outside the workplace.
I’m not the only one to suffer such a fate.
As I mentioned before, leaders pay lip service to innovate to “keep up with times.” But in practice, they reward conformity and punish actions that challenge the status quo. They impose processes to avoid things from straying from plans.
Both employees and the organizations pay a heavy price for this in the form of decreased productivity, motivation, and bottom line.
But when people know their objectives and key results and enjoy a certain level of autonomy, they go beyond their job roles to help the company achieve its goals. This is why startups find it easier to retain talent and scale.
Conformity is not bad. But to thrive, your organization must balance it with letting your people rebel i.e. deviate from norms, policies, and common expectations to do things that benefit the organization.
When people get the freedom to do their best work, and a platform to succeed, they often repay your faith in ways that affect your bottom line.
c. Build a psychological safety net.
It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do: we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do. — Steve Jobs
According to an in-house study at Google, teams that flourish have four aspects in common:
- They allow people to fail without repercussions.
- They respect divergent opinions.
- People in them feel free to question others’ choices.
- People trust that they won’t be undermined.
These aspects comprise a shared belief in communities called psychological safety, where members feel safe to take risks, enjoy mutual trust and can be themselves, and attack problems, not people.
As a leader, you can do one of two things.
You can cast a net on your people, restricting what they can and cannot do. When you become a (micro) manager, you get sheep that perennially need a shepherd.
Or you can create a psychological safety net for them: there if they need it, unobtrusive if they don’t. When you become a leader, you get lions that clinically solve problems like they’re hunting prey.
Encourage your people to learn from their mistakes and others to learn from them. Let them feel comfortable to speak their minds without getting personal. Involve them while designing tasks to enable them to add value to their work.
This will culminate in higher job satisfaction and employee retention.
Building a purpose-oriented culture is not a one-time activity. It’s one you must refine over and over again.
Purpose drives people better than anything else. When your people find it, they turn the workplace into their home. And you can retain them and get meaningful results without burning a hole in your pocket.
Imagine what you can achieve with the right people who stick with you no matter what!