If Work Lacks Meaning, It’s Just Shoveling Elephant Dung

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By Martin Berman-Gorvine

A man who cleans up elephant dung at the circus is complaining about his job to a friend. “Why don’t you quit?” the friend asks. “What? And leave show business?” the man exclaims.

It’s an old joke, but it illustrates something important about helping employees discover meaning in their work, Adam Zuckerman, employee engagement practice leader in the Chicago office of consultancy Willis Towers Watson, told Bloomberg BNA Feb. 15: “It’s in the framing.”

An analogous real-life example concerns a hospital janitor who said that “his job was really preventing infection,” Zuckerman said.

Sadly, polling data show that most workers are only seeing the shovel and what’s coming out of the elephant’s rear end.

“Employees who strongly agree they can link their goals to the organization’s goals are 3.5 times more likely to be engaged. Unfortunately, only 44 percent of employees “strongly agree” that they can see this connection,” according to Gallup’s “State of the American Workplace” survey.

Thus, it’s little surprise that only 33 percent of U.S. workers are engaged at their jobs, according to the survey, which was released Feb. 15 and based on data collected from more than 195,600 U.S. employees in 2015 and 2016.

Search for Meaning

“One of the most valuable things employers do is provide meaning and context for work, even where it’s not obvious,” Zuckerman said.

The source of this meaning can be external, based on things like the employers’ corporate social responsibility profile, community and environmental engagement. Or it can be internal, based on the employee’s own career development, learning and growth opportunities, he said.

“It varies by employee in terms of what will have interest for them,” Zuckerman said. Employers can determine this through surveys that “help employees have a voice and help employers understand the employee experience and what’s important to them.”

Willis Towers Watson has started offering individualized employee engagement reports based on such surveys, which are meant to help employees understand their own motivators, he said.

“A lot of it comes down to understanding employee engagement and its drivers,” Zuckerman said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Martin Berman-Gorvine in Washington at mbermangorvine@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Tony Harris at tharris@bna.com

For More Information

The Gallup State of the American Workplace survey results are available at http://www.gallup.com/reports/199961/state-american-workplace-report-2017.aspx.

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