A Crisis of Purpose in the Workplace? How collaboration can make a difference.

Humans are social beings. We crave connection with others and we define purpose in life in strong reference to fellow human beings. The workplace today is a dominant social organisation and as such it has become the most central point for us to define and live out our purpose. Having friends at work is critical. Creating and sharing value with our peers in the workplace is immensely satisfying and important. Collaboration is a business process but it is also a process by which employees can enhance their own sense of purpose.

There were times when work meant just that: work. Now, a workplace is only partially a workplace. It is also a prime living place. Western societies have transformed significantly in the past half century whereby a workplace is primary meaning-seeking territory. Without the workplace in all its forms, contemporary individuals are unable to complete their own narrative, their own sense of purpose in life as generations before them have. Discussions about the meaning of life, one’s personal life journey, ‘purpose beyond oneself’ as Abraham Maslow saw it, in the workplace is not something we see as part of the workplace productivity plan. And yet, perhaps that is precisely what we may soon start doing. The reason is simple. The current level of employee engagement is at a critically low level. Data indicates that almost all western economies now suffer from a high degree of staff disengagement (including what is referred to as ‘active disengagement’); between 70-80% that is. The losses in productivity are measured in billions of dollars (in some cases hundreds of billions).

HR specialists continue to grapple with this and there’s a plethora of advice on what ‘should’ be done to create a turnaround. The unfortunate thing is that, for many enterprises, this often boils down to a ‘last resort strategy’ which means paying employees more despite all evidence clearly pointing to the fact that pay increases only deliver temporary results. Some research has even indicated that a small increase (somewhere in order of 5%) in trust levels in the workplace can amount to a comparable level of satisfaction to an astonishing 30% pay increase. The problem with many solutions that focus on making employees more engaged is that the skills and genuine hard work on the part of managers and senior leaders is not such an appealing option. Quite frankly, before employees can be engaged, a lot of change has to occur in management and leadership structures. For instance, leaders have to possess broader levels of knowledge and skills than what was required before they became leaders. Making record sales may open the door to the position of Manager, but the employees will want more than a boss with a smart sales strategy.

The challenge then is to rethink the idea of the reward system in business as it stands now. I often wonder how long it will be before we take a leaf from the highly competitive world of sports. Take soccer for instance. The best teams in the world are major super corporations. Teams such as Manchester United, AC Milan, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Barcelona etc are major sporting brands who pay players millions of dollars, and even hundreds of millions in some cases. And yet each team is led by a capable manager (often a player at some point in their career) who is not paid as well as the players they manage and lead. There is a lesson in this business approach.

When the above described factors are considered as a whole it comes as no surprise that innovative approaches to workplace engagement are critical for competitive business. It is also clear that growing workplace practices such as collaboration offer serious potential for employees and managers to create purposeful workplaces. In practical terms this means increased trust, satisfaction, confidence and productivity. Collaboration in the workplace can allow staff to share more than knowledge. It can allow them to see the purpose of their endeavours as an outcome that is not measured purely in net profit, but also in the impact their work has on customers. A workplace that collaborates is capable of creating a dimension of narrative about its company or product/service that is way too expensive or impossible to craft by a marketing team. And, best of all, collaboration can start only with small attitude change.

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