Your employees want to find meaning in the work they do. Humans have an innate desire to learn new skills and tackle challenging tasks, and satisfying these desires motivates us to work harder.
But many organizations and managers (often unknowingly) prevent employees from engaging in meaningful work, writes Dan Cable, professor or organization behavior at London Business School and author of Alive at Work, for Harvard Business Review.
Our brains release dopamine when we take on meaningful and challenging work, allowing us to feel more motivated, purposeful, and alive. And when we aren’t given opportunities at work to engage in these activities, we become disengaged, unmotivated, and unproductive. Simply put: we fall out of love with our jobs.
Cable identifies the three reasons your employees lose motivation:
1: You don’t encourage self-expression
Despite the emphasis many organizations place on creativity and innovation, employees are often put into inflexible roles with little room for self-expression. And employees feel stifled when they are expected to “perform pre-programmed behaviors again and again,” Cable writes.
On the other hand, employees who feel their unique skills and perspectives are valued are happier and more productive. Cable recommends leaders encourage employees to identify and use these unique strengths to help their teams succeed. For example, at Make-A-Wish, leaders allow employees to create their own job titles—prompting employees to identify and highlight their contributions to the team, Cable notes.
2: You don’t let employees experiment
Even organizations that allow employees to try new things don’t always provide them with a supportive environment that encourages experimentation. “The research is clear that framing change and innovation as a chance to experiment and learn is better than framing it as a performance situation, which makes people anxious, risk-averse, and less willing to persist through difficulty,” Cable explains. He recommends organizations create experimental “safe zones” to support employees’ creativity—regardless of whether they succeed or fail.
3: Your employees don’t feel a sense of purpose
Your employees will be more motivated if they personalize the purpose of their work, according to Cable. We feel a sense of purpose when can “experience firsthand how our unique contributions help other people and allow the team to progress,” he writes.
Managers can encourage employees to understand the purpose of their work by allowing them to interact directly with the people their work affects. For example, Microsoft urges employees to spend time with clients to get a firsthand understanding of how the company’s products affect them (Cable, Harvard Business Review, 3/12).