It’s the great challenge of leadership: how to inspire employees to bring their best selves to work and deliver consistent, stellar performance. It is accepted wisdom that happy employees are better performers. While there is much truth to this, it can lead to some common leadership mistakes.
Yes, bells and whistles in the form of benefits, free food, a gym, casual days, game rooms, etc. are important tools in creating a positive culture that makes people feel appreciated and happier. But these sweeteners don’t necessarily translate into increased productivity and performance.
Creating a work zone of zen
To achieve that crucial goal, leaders must make the work itself meaningful. Writing in Inc., Geoffrey James makes a persuasive case for focusing on making the work matter as the key to both happiness and performance.
Think of your own life. When you’re fully engaged in what you’re doing, to the extent that you lose track of time and even of your surroundings, don’t you feel a sense of total engagement, stimulation, energy, satisfaction, and happiness? I know I do. It’s almost a Zen place, the zone, and when I’m there I almost always perform at the highest level. Nothing – and I mean nothing – beats that feeling of a job well done. It gives our life meaning in a profound way.
So how do leaders make the work matter?
5 steps to make work matter
1. Build a community of support. It’s tough to focus, which is essential for getting into the Zen zone, when you don’t feel that you’re in a supportive environment that allows you to ignore distractions, i.e. anything that pulls focus away from the work. Employees who feel a sense of community in the workplace, who know that their butts are covered, that the distractions will be handled by their colleagues, can slip into a cocoon of concentration that leads directly to the zone.
2. Link the work to the mission. Nothing is more demoralizing to an employee than the feeling that what they’re doing isn’t really adding much value. Make sure people know how important their contribution is. Be clear and explicit. And this applies to people at all levels in the organization. People will feel pride in their work if they understand its importance to the whole enterprise. This will boost focus and facilitate “zoning” in.
3. Give people space. This means both literal space and figurative space. Yes, wildly decorated cubicles can be fun, but they can also be concentration killers. What works at Zappos may not work at your organization. Quiet can be a beautiful, inspiring thing. To the greatest extent possible, create a workspace that accommodates people’s spatial needs. As for figurative, don’t be a helicopter leader – no hovering! It’s hard to get into the zone when someone is breathing down your neck. Trust your people, we’re all grownups here. Within the needs of the project, give them free rein and let them run with it.
4 . Watch the workload. If people have too much work, they stress out and shut down. They start to attack it mechanically, desperate to get the load down to a manageable size. This is a zone killer. On the other hand, make sure people have an engaging project. It’s so depressing to see employees killing time in random ways. Hours socializing, playing video games, surfing the web, organizing excursions, etc. do not lead to the zone.
5. Play to people’s passions. It’s much easier to be fully engaged and in the zone when you’re working on something that excites you, intellectually and emotionally. Obviously, not every project can thrill us. But to the greatest extent possible, help your people connect what they’re doing to what they care about. This gives work real meaning.
Work will matter, but not forced
Happiness is a loaded word in our culture, and in our workplace cultures. We all have our own personal definition of happiness. But I firmly believe that a happy work life is a direct result of doing work that matters – that engages us mind, heart, and soul. Leaders can’t force employees into the zone, but they can certainly facilitate and nurture the process and journey. It’s a deeply satisfying challenge