I have a confession to make. I love mundane errands. Do you ever wonder what it takes to blaze through tedious tasks with enthusiasm? Or how you could get others to have this enthusiasm?
In my life, this involves getting the laundry done, packing lunches in the freezer, and keeping my car washed and gassed. My purpose in life, my why statement as it were, is to step out the door on Monday morning living a motto that I’m here for the adventure. To achieve this, I must toil away on the weekend making sure everything is “just so”. It turns out I’ve been doing it right.
Tucked away in the research I summarized on crafting your own job, I saw a reference to a paper on making mundane tasks meaningful. The paper is “Self-Regulation and Goal Setting: Turning Free Fantasies About the Future Into Binding Goals”, by Oettingen, Pak, and Schnetter, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2001, Vol. 80, No. 5, p 736-753.
Overcome a Deficient Reality in the Pursuit of an Ideal State
The authors describe that the ideal state (i.e. the “fantasy”) must be achievable and envisioned first. Then people need to look at their current state (i.e. the “reality”) and perceive flaws in their reality that are obstacles to achieving the fantasy. When done in this sequence, people set tactical goals that allow them to overcome the deficient current state, and they perform those boring tactical goals extremely well. By contrast, the results are inferior when the thought process is reversed (i.e. reality then fantasy), or the fantasy is not achievable, or if people dwell exclusively on the present or future.
The authors, writing in 2001, prided themselves on breaking new ground in assessing how goals are created. Prior research was mostly about how goals are achieved. It’s funny when you think about it, that researchers and business leaders had previously thought that goals are equal in viability, desirability, and meaning. But not all goals are equal. For me, that seven-second first-impression moment when I meet a new colleague is the opening of infinite possibilities. Therefore, it is meaningful for me to shine my shoes on the weekend to prepare for this unknown co-adventurer.
Pointless Work is Destroying Wellbeing and Workplace Engagement
Not everyone thinks this way about mundane work. David Grauber, a professor of anthropology at the London School of Economics gave us a sneak preview of the content of his new book Bullshit Jobs: A Theory. In a Globe and Mail article he tells us there is an epidemic of meaningless work in the modern workforce. He found that 37% of surveyed employees in the UK think that their jobs are meaningless and make no contribution to the world.
If you include those who are doing work in support of these jobs – say, the cleaners or receptionists or security staff in buildings inhabited entirely by publicists, lobbyists, financial consultants or corporate lawyers whose sole responsibility is to arrange elaborate tax scams – plus the hours of pointless meetings and paperwork inflicted on those with useful jobs, which are in large part to justify the existence of the useless ones, it’s quite possible that as much as half the work we’re doing could be eliminated without negative consequences, and with dramatic positive effects on everything from health to climate change.
I’m not entirely convinced that people are accurate in the assessment that their jobs are meaningless. Business leaders spend significant time making work more efficient. They also ensure alignment with strategic goals. The issues that speak to this malaise of meaninglessness is that the work is entirely for the benefit of someone at the top, that those leaders think they are fabulous, they do not care about the thoughts of their juniors and can’t fathom why they should explain how the work relates to a higher purpose.
People are frustrated with elites because the elites don’t care if the people are frustrated. This apathy and frustration kills employee engagement.
Grauber found that work environments that are meaningless have a higher incidence of stress and bullying. Other people reported ailments such as anxiety and depression “…that vanished as soon as they found themselves doing meaningful work.” He suggests that people actually want to perform meaningful work but our workplaces are depriving us of this nourishment. Grauber notes that in prisons the vast majority of convicts will take advantage of opportunities for employment, even when there is no compulsion to do so. It is workplaces that impose meaninglessness upon us, and that puts people into a funk.
Pursuit of the Ideal is More Meaningful than Doing What We Ought
Sure, we ought to be hard workers. But the phrase “ought to” is what is causing people to feel stuck. Christian Jarrett, in an article in the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest, talks to Thomas Gilovich and Shai Davidai about their new research on people’s life regrets. The research makes a distinction between two types of self. The ideal self is your own hopes and dreams, that self you identify with deeply, your self-concept. The ought self is what your client wants done yesterday, what your boss is demanding of you, and the things your family expects of you but you never have a voice in.
Peoples’ life regrets are biggest for lost opportunities attached to an unrealized ideal self. Similar to “fantasy realization” in the research by Oettingen et al, the most compelling motivators are our personal hopes and dreams, things that come from inside us. By contrast, goals that are volun-told to us or forced upon us aren’t things that bother us all that much. People are still pretty good at taking care of tasks associated with the ought self. But they don’t really care if they fail to deliver. That sounds like meaningless work to me. That sounds like disengagement.
What does this mean for our day jobs? It means that we must ask leaders to put thought into their organization’s higher purpose. Leaders need to believe this higher purpose, it must be laudable, and it must inspire. Then those at the ground level must be coached to see the connection between their daily work and that higher purpose. Employees must be led to imagine a higher state, make it part of an ideal they embody, and that they see themselves overcoming obstacles in the pursuit of that goal. Their daily work must bring them towards a purpose they are attached to.
I’m pretty sure I can’t get you to shine my shoes. But what if I convinced you that next Friday afternoon you get to meet your future self? A future self that figured out their hopes and dreams, then accomplished them. I’ll bet personal grooming never sounded so good.