To serve you all in these challenging times, I’ve been connected with the Gallup organization (the polling giants) and tapping into their data of how employees have reacted to every major crisis in the past eight decades– including the Great Depression, Pearl Harbor and World War II, the Kennedy assassination, upheavals and riots in the 1960s, 9/11, the 2008 global financial crash, H1N1, SARS, and now the COVID-19 pandemic. The goal is to let history lead us forward, so you can do the same with your employees.
Unequivocally what I’m finding is that, once again, your employees are yearning for a sense of meaning. And they need it from their work, too. Now more than ever.
After September 11, 2001, the phenomenon of re-examining the role that work plays in one’s life, and how it contributes to the definition of self, was widespread. In the weeks and months after, stories began emerging of life changes people were making. The tragedy had recast how people were thinking about their work and how they were spending their work lives. Applications for the job of school teacher skyrocketed by more than 50 percent, for example. Many sought a higher order beacon– meaning. The need for meaning re-entered the collective conscience, as it does with every catastrophe.
After the heinous Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in Connecticut in 2012, President Obama addressed the nation in an attempt to make sense of the madness by saying: “Why are we here? From what do we draw meaning?” These are the questions of human nature that resurface, over and over, in times of tragedy. And now is no different.
Meaning is what employees need from you right now. Meaning gives us something to return to when we feel lost. It gives us perspective, helps us make sense of the world, and gives us a sense of control. In fact, meaning is the highest-order of four effects you can expect to see in the coming months (if you aren’t already seeing them):
1. The Essentials Effect.
Employees will begin to feel a renewed appreciation for the basics like pay, promotions, and perks. That happens when you personally experience such basics being taken away (or know someone who has, which is everyone in this crisis).
2. The Rally Effect.
This is a term straight from Gallup which says that with a clear way forward, humans are incredibly resilient and stand ready to rally. We’ll come back to this in a moment.
3. The Fleeting Effect.
Originally labeled by social scientists, this is when we experience a reminder that life is precious, that impermanence is inevitable, and when we’re reminded that we shouldn’t take for granted everyday things in our lives. This effect directly leads into the highest-order, of highest importance effect, next.
4. The Meaning Effect.
This kicks in as we yearn to replace lost meaning. Perhaps it has been lost from lost loved ones, lost income, lost businesses, lost dreams. This is when we’re burning to answer the question about work (and life), “What’s the point of it all?” It surges when we’re reminded of the role meaning plays in our life and/or when we feel it evaporating.
The meaning effect is where you come in as a leader. You can help employees by a) helping them find meaning in the struggle; giving them what they need right now as they’re struggling through the largest disruption to human behavior in history (according to Gallup), and by b) helping them find meaning that sustains.
First, here’s what hot-off-the-press data is telling us that employees need from you right now to find meaning in the struggle. They need four reassurances: trust, stability, hope, and compassion. Here’s how you specifically give it to them, according to the latest Gallup data.
1. Provide a clear plan of action. Only 38 percent of employees currently feel they are getting such a plan. Providing it fills the needs of trust, stability, and hope.
2. Ensure they’re equipped with the basics to do their job. As of today, only 50 percent of employees feel they have what they need to operate effectively during this crisis. Research shows that in times of crisis it’s critical to go back to basics– set clear expectations, check in on material and equipment needs, and connect their work to the broader mission. Doing all of this fuels a sense of stability.
3. Communicate. Then communicate some more. You should now be treating communication as a strategy, not an activity, especially if you’re leading employees from a distance. This feeds the need for trust and stability. Only 48 percent of employees currently feel they’re getting enough communication from their bosses.
4. Demonstrate concern for their total well-being. Employees want to know you have their holistic being in mind: financial, emotional, physical, even spiritual. This includes encouragement you give them to stick to social distancing restrictions and giving them flexibility, especially for remote workers, on how they get their work done. This feeds the basic need for compassion.
That’s the basics of what employees need right now according to the latest data, to find meaning in the struggle to get back to normalcy.
As for helping them find meaning that sustains, I go back to what I write about frequently, what’s detailed in my book Make It Matter. Help them reframe the way they view their work to imbue it with a sense of purpose and legacy, so that their work matters even more to them. Feed their learning and personal growth. Help them feel a sense of self-esteem and competency. Grant copious amounts of autonomy so they can feel a sense of control (especially needed in today’s world). And foster a caring, authentic, teamwork-based environment for them.
It’s meaning that matters. Now, and always. So help your employees find it, now, and always.