Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is most important that you do it. –Gandhi
Whatever you are, be a good one. –Abraham Lincoln
In~spire: to breathe or blow upon or into; to infuse (life, etc. into) by breathing; to draw air into the lungs; to inhale; to have an animating effect upon; to influence with idea or purpose
PART ONE: WHISTLE WHILE YOU WORK
Just the word inspire makes company cynics—borderline and otherwise—cringe. Bandied about for decades by “motivational” speakers and writers, it is no wonder employees shudder and roll their eyes upon hearing it.
Yet, I am asking company leaders to travel back to the word’s original meaning: to inhale; to draw air into the lungs. I am asking leaders to consider that without this air, it’s impossible for employees to whistle. Without air, they can’t accept or be content with their current positions and the companies they work for. That is not to say that leaders shouldn’t mine potential and urge and provide opportunities for those who would like to learn and grow within a company. In-house development of employees is a given. However, business trends focusing on development alone ignore the immediate problem of employee dissatisfaction with the job at hand. This series of articles will address how to breathe life into even the most apathetic employees, resuscitating their commitment, enthusiasm, energy, and—dare I say—pride.
Now, more than ever, we need to focus on employee happiness. What sounds simple is perhaps the most difficult thing to achieve. However, if you consider how much the workforce has changed in the last decade, you will begin to understand the need for a new trend, not just a sidelong glance, at employee happiness.
Think about how different it is today. Fifty-six percent of jobs are held by women. Unions are viewed as specious. Diversity is the norm. Nor should anyone ignore the global recession that’s either improving or not, given the newscast. Simply put, the economy left many workers, tatty briefcases and outdated resumes in tow, no option but to change careers. It left this demographic—many lacking technical savvy—searching for a new career in a new world of at-will employment. How, indeed, do we regain the trust of these individuals? How do we make them happy? How do we inspire them?
When my mother was a child, she loved to swim. Once summer started, her brothers, all older, took her every day to the town’s public pool. She told me she was a good swimmer back then, even though she’d never had a lesson. Then one day she was swimming underwater, holding her breath, weaving around the legs of other children and adults, willing herself to make it from one end of the pool to the other. And it was on this day she drowned.
She doesn’t remember drowning, only that the next thing she remembered was lying flat on her back and breathing again after the lifeguard performed CPR. She described to me the breath she took, that first one after not being able to breathe at all. That breath is remembered not as the ordinary breathing we take for granted every minute of our lives, but as something she’d never forget.
If you are amongst the lucky few who found and are employed in work you love, you might not understand what it’s like to stop breathing. People who love their work, people like me, sometimes take for granted those who aren’t so lucky, just as we take our own breathing for granted. Even those of us who have experienced work that wasn’t particularly fun forget those “bad jobs” once we’ve achieved our goals. We worked hard to get where we are, didn’t we? We collectively say, “Those others can, too!” We forget the amount of luck, timing, and sometimes money (tuition!) involved in securing a career we love. We forget that others have needs and limitations that prevent them from finding a job they might like better.
In addition to needs and limitations, some employees choose to work less-fulfilling jobs. Knowing the reasons for these choices is important if we are to keep these employees happy. From my observation, these are the reasons people work at less than fulfilling jobs:
- They need health benefits
- They need to support families and can’t risk returning to school or accepting a job they might like better for less pay
- They need to work certain hours in order to accomplish other goals or take care of their children or family members
- They are living in an area or town where no other jobs are available despite their skills or talent
- They are limited as far as skills and ability
- They are limited as far as language (either they don’t speak the native language or struggle with basic spoken grammar)
- They are limited by image or social status
- They are not ambitious and easily contented
- They like the people they work with
- They feel loyalty to the company they work for
- They enjoy the social aspects and events offered by the company
- They like working a task-oriented job, as to save their mental facilities for artistic endeavors: writing, music, the visual arts, and dance.
- They like routine and feel comfortable
- They feel respected
- They feel a certain amount of independence
- They feel trusted
- They feel like they are treated like human beings
- They feel like no one’s looking over their shoulder
- They feel like they know how to do their job well
- They like the company’s management
- They like their pay and feel valued
- They feel like they’re helping other people
- They feel like their company needs them
- They feel that they know what to expect from the company and its leaders
- They like that they are communicated with and included, appreciated, and acknowledged as the company grows and moves forward
It’s the last category (BY CHOICE) that can directly impact happiness. Everyone’s heard the quote that happiness comes from within. In some situations, I’m sure there’s some truth to that. But, at work, happiness needs to be cultivated by company leaders.
If needs and limitations are the only aspects that human resources, managers, and supervisors focus on, real happiness cannot be achieved among employees. A sincere belief, however, in addressing the last category could serve up miracles—both in creating a true esprit de corps and ultimately in the bottom line.
Notice the verbs used above:
- NEEDS: NEED
- LIMITATIONS: ARE
- BY CHOICE: FEEL & LIKE
Let’s mull this over. I need to eat every day. I need to drive 50 miles in order to get to work. Neither makes me happy, though eating can sometimes be fun. Often, however, I’m so busy, eating’s more like stuffing my gob and swallowing just to keep from tipping over. But these are needs. I can name fifty needs. What do you actually need? Think about it.
Now, ask yourself: If I focused solely on my needs, would I be happy? Most likely not. Employees aren’t happy either with companies focusing primarily on benefits, money, and flexible shifts. It’s certainly a component, but there’s much more to it.
Limitations are even tougher if not impossible to address. Steps can be taken, to be sure, in improvement of image, skills, and language barriers. And staff development is key to a company’s success. Yet some things are just what they are. For instance, I don’t snow ski and am a forty-seven-year-old woman who’s afraid of heights and lives in the desert and finds cold weather alarming. No matter how much I might want to be ski instructor or work at a ski resort, it’s not going to happen. I am limited. Could I dedicate several years of my life to learning to ski? Could I ever really get over my fear of heights? Could I adjust to bitter cold? With therapy, perhaps. But I don’t really have the time. And let’s be realistic, at the same moment acknowledging discrimination laws, if I were to learn how to ski, conquer my fear of heights, buy some sturdy long johns and a wool hat, I would by then be in my fifties. My glasses get thicker each year, and my right knee every so often mysteriously gives out.
Picture me interviewing against young and sun-kissed athletes, kids who have probably been snow-skiing their entire lives. Their teeth would be white; their bodies nearly indestructible. Face it, folks, they would definitely get the job over me.
What I’m trying to say is that certain limitations are insurmountable. That’s a sad, sad truth, especially in America, the land of dreams and opportunity. But we are limited. Everyone is limited in a different way.
The next category is the one to get excited about. This category can almost always be addressed, built upon, bolstered, and tapped into. If Human Resources decided to address all that employees were feeling and liking, happiness and thereby profits would soar.