When your heart isn’t at work. 4 Psychological Needs You Might Be Neglecting
“An office is for not dying.
An office is a place to live life to the fullest.”
— Michael Scott (The Office US)
If you’ve been going to work this week feeling a little demotivated, spare a thought for some of your ancestors.
As plague bearers, gong farmers, leech collectors, sin eaters, or – god forbid – the Royal Groom of the Stool, they’d probably have had more reasons to complain than you.
And yet, you're in good company because a recent Gallup report found that 77 per cent of all workers globally describe themselves as disengaged in their roles.
Job disengagement has plagued workers throughout history.
Take the 19th-century cotton mill workers or those operating the Ford T assembly line a hundred years later, for example; they didn’t have much to be cheery about at work.
But it almost certainly feels worse today given how wrapped up our identities and careers have become in the past forty years.
We’ve become what we do.
Our jobs are also no longer purely transactional, and we demand more from our workplace than just a fat paycheck – we expect to find purpose.
According to McKinsey research, 70 per cent of all employees say their sense of purpose is defined by their day-to-day work.
Yet, despite those high expectations, it appears not many are actually finding it.
So where is it we’re going wrong?
What is job disengagement?
Gallup’s report shows striking differences worldwide, with job engagement the highest in South Asia (33%), the US and Canada (31%), and the lowest in Europe (13%).
There’s considerable variety nationally, too, with Romanian workers (33%) classing themselves as the most engaged and French (7%) and Italians (5%) the least, while the UK (10%) finds itself somewhere in the lower middle.
Looking more closely, most employees worldwide (59%) are neither actively engaged nor actively disengaged.
These are the so-called quiet quitters that social media won't stop banging on about.
An unkind description would be ‘bums on seats’ – clockwatchers putting in just enough effort not to draw negative attention to their minimal productivity.
But even though they’re psychologically disconnected from their organisation, they still mean well, and that actually puts them at higher risk of stress and burnout than their more engaged colleagues.
Source: Gallup The State of the Global Workforce 2023
Another significant minority (18%) is disengaged but much more vocal about it.
These are the loud quitters.
Either they weren't a good match for their role in the first place, or there’s been a breach of trust with their employer, and they’re loud because they’re actively out to undercut their managers and harm their employers.
And hallelujah, we finally reached a relatively small minority of thriving employees.
They’ll also have the odd off-day, but overall, they’re a pretty proactive and happy bunch who come to work most days feeling pretty inspired and glad to be there.
They feel connected to their colleagues and the organisational values, take ownership of their work, and are happy to go the extra mile because they see their employment as meaningful.
The quiet and loud quitters shake their heads in disbelief and envy at this cheery bunch of happy clappies.
Self-determination: hygiene factors versus motivators
Company leaders often fail to understand that the things that prevent employees from feeling de-motivated are different from those that actually motivate them.
Indeed, Frederick Herzberg’s influential research showed that a lack of job dissatisfaction does not equal job satisfaction.
That’s why improving the elements that cause people to switch off from work (low pay, bureaucracy, bad managers) isn’t enough for them to thrive in their roles.
They’ll simply feel less disengaged.
Herzberg called these elements hygiene factors and they include efforts to improve work conditions, extra-curricular benefits and higher salaries, reducing unnecessarily bureaucratic processes, or providing more stimulating career opportunities.
Overall, these are great ways to get you to feel less unhappy at work, but not quite enough to make you happy.
To get past that baseline, Herzberg identified something more critical: intrinsic rewards or so-called motivators.
Unless we feel our work is meaningful (to ourselves, our community, the organisation, and/or the world), we won’t engage, commit and feel fulfilled by it, so motivators are all the things that give your work a sense of meaning.
Without that sense of purpose, we’ll quit – quietly or loudly – especially younger people who attach a greater value to meaningful work than ever before.
How to create such meaning and purpose you might ask? I’ll answer by referencing the work of psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, who first coined Self-determination Theory.
This theory states that in our search for meaningful work, we’re driven by our desire to fulfil three psychological needs: our needs for autonomy, mastery and relatedness.
Based on my expertise as a career coach, I’m going to add a fourth one – the need to create impact.
1) Autonomy: Getting to decide how you spend your own time
Ask anyone who thrives in their role, and they’ll tell you that having the freedom to decide how and when they want to work is a major contributor to their job satisfaction.
This probably explains why self-employment continues to be a dream for so many.
One positive consequence of the pandemic is that most workplaces have embraced hybrid working and slowly learned to trust their staff not to spend their workdays binge-watching Married At First Sight.
But despite a significant shift towards greater flexibility, many organisations still cling to an old-fashioned command-and-control structure and are staffed by micro-managers, which only contributes to job disengagement.
Yet, a 2022 Jabra report highlights that those employees with complete autonomy over where and when they work report much greater work satisfaction than those with more limited autonomy.
Trust is often still an issue, however, according to Jabra’s SVP Holger Reisinger:
“When leaders give employees the freedom to choose where and when they work, it signals that they trust them to do the job they were hired to do. A high-autonomy approach to work will create happier, healthier, and higher-performing employees who will be able to find a balance that benefits both themselves and the wider organisation.”
Of course, some people prefer to work in a low-autonomy environment because there’s a sense of safety when given a clear direction and set of instructions.
But even within that environment, you can increase your levels of freedom and job satisfaction by doing a bit of job-crafting – for example, by changing up your daily work routine by blocking some uninterrupted time for deep work or even a gym session.
2) Belonging: Developing friendships in and outside of work
We all long to belong. It's a core human need, so it shouldn't come as a surprise that your relationships at work are a significant contributor to giving your job purpose and meaning.
Depending on where you live and your office culture, making friends with your colleagues might bring up some resistance.
But given that you're likely to spend more than 80,000 hours at work across your career, you may as well accept that your office (virtual or real) can be a social haven.
Stephen Friedman, Adjunct Professor in Organisational Studies at York University in Toronto, sees many advantages to developing friendships at work: enhanced innovation, feelings of psychological safety, and compassion – to name a few.
In a recent article for Berkeley University, he writes that "When employers balance leadership and friendship with their employees, it encourages the vulnerability, adaptability, and humility that is required in today's business environments."
According to Friedman, having one or several workplace close friends or friends around will have a positive impact on your feelings of belonging at work.
Of course, unless you're the office golden retriever, you'll never like everyone at work.
But even if the thought of grinning and bearing feels inauthentic, it's in your interest to build friendly and productive working relationships with colleagues you dislike.
Being unfriendly makes work less enjoyable for everyone – not in the least for yourself.
Research by Gallup also found that those who felt most engaged in their workplace were anchored in at least one or two communities outside of work because it helps them keep a healthy perspective on work while tapping into other parts of their identity.
This is particularly important for fully remote workers and those who are self-employed.
3) Mastery: becoming really good at what you do
In his book So Good They Can’t Ignore You, Cal Newport dispels a common myth that to be happy and engaged at work, you must do what you love and be passionate about.
He calls this the passion hypothesis.
Rather, he views passion as something that follows success rather than precedes it and says that it is only once we reach proficiency in something that we become more engaged in it.
As a result, anyone can become passionate about any role as long as they set an intention to master it.
There’s a strong correlation between job engagement and learning because unless you continue to develop new skills, you’ll quickly get bored doing the same thing.
The opposite of boredom is a psychological concept called flow, which I’ve written about in the past.
Flow is that lovely feeling when you’re so engrossed in what you do that your concept of time and space disappears.
But however pleasant and rewarding the activity, flow always requires a tiny element of struggle. Indeed, research has shown that for flow to occur, the challenge you’re facing must be consistently slightly above your skill levels – about 4 per cent, to be precise.
It’s a tricky tightrope to walk because if the challenge levels are too high, you’ll get stressed and burnt out; if they are too low, you’ll get bored and start to disengage.
For more ideas on how to increase your mastery, take a look at last month’s newsletter about T-shaped careers.
When it comes to mastery, your work environment and immediate colleagues play a role as well.
Even if you enjoy learning new things and getting better, you may still get pulled in by the sucker effect, also known as social loafing.
This happens when otherwise-engaged people who are surrounded by non-engaged people – especially loud quitters – actively reduce their efforts so as not to come across as, you guessed it, a sucker.
4) Impact: doing what really matters to you
To feel engaged at work, it must feel like your job is more than just bringing in a paycheck.
Your work has to connect with your values and align with your moral compass.
Indeed, just like belonging is a core human need, so is our desire to contribute and make a difference in the world.
We want to engage in work that transcends our self-interest and know that the service or product we create measurably contributes to someone else's satisfaction.
That desire to transcend isn't limited to the 'helping' professions like doctors, social workers, or teachers, although how we create impact is highly subjective.
Your job doesn't literally have to make the world a better place.
A barista having a friendly chat with a customer can feel as much impact as a divorce lawyer guiding their client through a difficult time or the person teaching their language to new arrivals.
If you're feeling disengaged from your work, ask yourself whether your own personal values and moral compass are still in line with that of the organisation or, indeed, the career you've chosen.
Understand what your values are and then find or craft a role that aligns with them.
Conclusion: continue the search for meaning
There's nothing wrong with going to work purely motivated by hygiene factors.
If a paycheck at the end of the month gets you out of bed smiling, then Yahtzee!
But if the hygiene factors have been taken care of and you still don't feel happy at work, perhaps it's time to reassess the sacrifices you've been making regarding integrity and job fulfilment.
Don't settle for less than a rich, meaningful and flourishing career.
That needn't necessarily mean changing jobs or careers because, even in your current role, you have more agency than you think.
Indeed, if a job switch isn't imminently possible, address your mindset.
Do some job crafting, make new friends at work, set an intention to do a great job and remind yourself who or what you're doing it all for.
And if that still doesn't work, praise yourself lucky you weren't born in Victorian times.
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