As a Millennial who has been talked about by older generations (and now observes and talks about the younger ones), I’ve listened and been part of many conversations about employee engagement and productivity. There are plenty of explanations that float around about why there are downward trends in these areas as the workforce gets younger: Millennials are lazy, Millennials have a toxic hustle culture and burn themselves out (yes, I’m aware of the irony), Gen Z is lazy! Gen Z has no work ethic. They’re soft, they’re selfish, they’re disconnected, they’re entitled. On and on and on. Of course, none of these explanations give leaders anything to work with if they want to improve engagement and productivity.
Another explanation is that younger generations want work with meaning, and work that contributes to our personal growth and fulfillment. Work that is increasingly personal rather than just a transactional experience. We want to feel a sense of belonging and purpose at work and to feel energized and rewarded by what we get to contribute to. That seems pretty reasonable to me, and actually not just a generational thing but very human.
Plenty of studies have said a sense of meaning and purpose is what employees need, but even in the most purposeful roles people can get burnt out and run down (actually, it’s those in purpose-driven jobs that may be MOST susceptible to burn out and overwhelm, along with experiences of depression given that the thing that once was a source of passion has now become a source of anxiety, unease, and guilt).
At Conversant we often say that “joy belongs at work,” and internally we’ve also adopted the catch phrase “my job doesn’t suck ” (it’s true, we have sweatshirts). Truly, we count ourselves lucky among the employed because we do all personally care about our work, what we get to contribute, and the people we get to do that work with. That being said, work will always inevitably “suck” at one point or another.
So, it isn’t just a sense of meaning that keeps people going when times get tough, and it isn’t that our jobs need to be easier or more fun. What I’ve found really matters is the perceived potential for growth and personal fulfillment – and that’s definitely not a generational thing.
Early on in my career, there was a time when I was at a job I had become pretty disenchanted with, and as any millennial in that position would do I started frantically looking at job openings on LinkedIn. Someone gave me the advice that before jumping ship, I should ask myself whether there were still opportunities for me to grow in that role and at that organization. If the answer was yes, then it would be worthwhile to stick around a bit longer and commit to learning as much as I could. If the answer was no, then I could go on filling out job applications. It’s advice I’ve passed on to peers, friends, and coaching clients over the years, and I believe it invites a healthy reminder that growth is itself a worthwhile pursuit.
Growth is rarely comfortable or easy, and often the grass really isn’t much greener anywhere else. Work is work – it takes effort and, designed well, stretches you to reach a new level of potential. We are designed to imagine a future version of ourselves and of our lives, and when we can look back and see how much we’ve evolved through committing ourselves to some purposeful pursuit, that is the most fulfilling thing of all.
Human beings have an innate longing for growth and learning that stays with us throughout our lives. The concept of self-actualization, associated most popularly with Kurt Goldstein, Abraham Maslow, and Carl Rogers, has been a subject of psychological study for many moons and provides a theory of explanation for human behavior and motivation.
You’ve likely heard of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: often shown in a pyramid, the hierarchy consists of five categories or levels of human need. At the bottom are basic physiological needs, then safety, then love and belonging, esteem, and finally self-actualization (Maslow later amended that “transcendence” lived above self-actualization on the hierarchy – a fun fact you can explore further if you’re interested).
It’s been largely misinterpreted that Maslow believed you could only address a higher level of need after the lower more basic ones were fulfilled. As it turns out, there’s no evidence Maslow even used a pyramid in sharing his thinking. It’s thought that this was a visual simplification and interpretation of his theory by others, used in the mid 20th century for educational purposes (a good lesson for those of us that are educators and facilitators!)
When Maslow originally published his ideas in 1943, he said, “We have spoken so far as if this hierarchy were a fixed order but actually it is not nearly as rigid as we may have implied. It is true that most of the people with whom we have worked have seemed to have these basic needs in about the order that has been indicated. However, there have been a number of exceptions.” In that spirit, we should not wait to pay attention to self-actualization until all our other human needs have been fulfilled.
Self-actualization is defined as “the realization or fulfillment of one’s talents and potentialities, especially considered as a drive or need present in everyone.” Needs associated with self-actualization are education, skill development, caring for others, and goal achievement. Grace Beverley, a female entrepreneur named on Forbes 30 under 30’s retail and e-commerce list and a highly influential content creator, wrote about self-actualization in her best-selling book Working Hard, Hardly Working and I love the way she thinks about it. She emphasizes that self-actualization is not something we should wait around to happen to us, or a pinnacle of achievement. Rather, it’s an active, ongoing pursuit that can imbue our work and our lives with meaning, purpose, motivation, and fulfillment. It is, in other words, a choice to work and live with a self-actualizing mindset. And if we are to leverage the lessons of this area of study as employees and as employers, there is a responsibility to care for the conditions that support it on both sides.
Now, both in looking at the hierarchy and the dictionary definition, it seems like a pretty individualistic focus. Our dear friend and colleague Anne Murray Allen, who has studied social collaboration and systems change extensively, wrote in her forward to The Vitality Imperative, “The autonomy to pursue a meaningful life only has traction in relationship to each other and a shared purpose.” Even if we go back to Maslow’s intentions, he actually didn’t see this as separate from communal and social forces. In his 2020 book Transcend: The New Science of Self-Actualization, Scott Barry Kaufman says, “It was [Maslow’s] belief that if society can create the conditions to satisfy one’s basic needs, including the freedom to speak honestly and openly, to grow and develop one’s unique capacities and passions, and to live in societies with fairness and justice, what naturally and organically emerges tends to be the characteristics that resemble the best in humanity.”
What we can learn from Maslow’s study and that of others is that there are conditions under which human beings are best able to grow and work towards self-actualization, which in turn contributes exponentially to community actualization.
Through our work with leaders and organizations, we’ve found there are three essential ingredients that lead to vitality and growth for the organization AND the individuals it employs:
As mentioned before, there is both a personal and an organizational responsibility at play here. On the personal side, take responsibility for clarifying what it is you would love to give, what your natural and unique strengths are, and the ways you are called to grow and challenge yourself (contribution). After clarifying, make sure you can really own that this is how you choose to be in the world (choice). That’s not to say it won’t evolve over time, as everything does, but allow this to be a personal declaration and commitment. Then you have to be your own advocate in finding where that fits within your work. Where is the intersection between what you have to give and what the organization (your community) needs?
You don’t necessarily need to go job hunting to find this sweet spot – it may be a simple perspective shift in how you think about the value of your role. Have a conversation with your manager or a colleague and ask what they think. If you’re a manager and have a report who’s engagement you’re worried about, host this conversation with them – what is it they would love to give? How would they love to grow? Where does that fit in the context of what the organization and team needs right now?
If there really is no intersection of interest, and you don’t see opportunities for you to grow in line with your aspirations, then you could start exploring other options. But don’t jump to that conclusion too quickly (believe me, I know from experience!) Even if departing is the answer, you can do so in the same spirit you’ve declared is how you want to show up. It doesn’t have to be a resentful, dramatic, or overly painful experience. It may just simply be what’s best for both you and your employer. Use this as an opportunity to grow, too!
On the organizational side, there is a responsibility of leadership to commit to something beyond the P&L and any quantitative measures of performance. You’ll notice that Kaufman includes within “basic needs” things like freedom and justice. Love, belonging, dignity, and a sense of self-respect and esteem also live on the hierarchy, and the work being done in the realm of DEIJB is a critical area of focus for leaders anywhere that want to create vital organizations that are good for humanity, good for the world, and good for business (and no, these do not need to live in conflict with one another).
This cannot be a half-hearted pursuit. It also deserves a declaration; one you are willing to hold yourself and those that lead along side you accountable to. If we all take on the work of actualizing, for our own sake and for the sake of the communities we’re a part of, it is a promise to keep every day and in every conversation, even when (especially when!) it gets tough.
What improves engagement and productivity? Designing work and our relationship to our work to work with the nature of being human. Sounds too simple? Well, perhaps it really isn’t that complicated after all.
Emma Rose has a diverse background in B2B marketing and sales, psychology, hospitality, and mental health and wellness. She is deeply passionate about what makes us […]Read more