The majority of workplaces are structured solely for contributions. Contribution is a critical element. Everybody wants to contribute. But everybody is human, and humans also need to belong and have a sense of meaning. Consider our language. We call people “Individual Contributors” – not Individual Connector or Individual Meaning Maker.
What Might It Look Like If We Structured The Workplace not just for Contribution, but also for Meaning and Belonging?
We flatten organizations, striving for leaner operations. However, this hasn’t led to thriving workplaces. Most executives balk at concepts like belonging and meaning. Ironically, their one-dimensional organizations tend to perform worse than the multi-dimensional ones. Despite their focus on contribution, less contribution is actually attained.
There are a few leaders out there who see the utility of addressing all three human needs as a means toward greater productivity. Google’s Project Aristotle has done substantial research on the keys to team productivity. They have found five keys to a successful Google team:
- Psychological safety: Can we take risks on this team without feeling insecure or embarrassed?
This speaks to a sense of belonging, being in or out, inclusion.
- Dependability: Can we count on each other to do high quality work on time?
- Structure & clarity: Are goals, roles, and execution plans on our team clear?
These two speak to a sense of contribution. That the work makes sense and is moving forward.
- Meaning of work: Are we working on something that is personally important for each of us?
- Impact of work: Do we fundamentally believe that the work we’re doing matters?
These final two speak to a sense of meaning and purpose.
I am a huge fan of Project Aristotle. Google offers confirming data for what we already know to be true. But, Project Aristotle is still framed in a context in which contribution is paramount. The logic suggests that we do these things because these things produce results, not because they are essential aspects to a healthy human experience.
Something more is possible.
We shouldn’t include people so they will work harder. Instead, we include people because belonging is part of a healthy human system. We don’t define purpose to get things done. We attend to meaning because it matters. When meaning, belonging and contribution are all handled, then, and only then, does the workplace become a truly healthy, thriving human system.
In practice, consider what changes might be necessary In order to build meaning, contribution and connection into your company. For example, a review system might have three parts:
- The first would look similar to current review formats with KPIs on work product.
- The second part might measure levels of trust.
- The third might ask for stories about making a difference.
Consider the following example:
In this scenario, Employee 2, the “high performer” with a 95% contribution score, scored much lower in total than the Employees 1 and 3. To take Belonging and Meaning seriously, this is the sort of calculation that is needed.
Some organizations, like Netflix, will not tolerate “Brilliant Jerks.” This rule filters employees on the very low end of the Belonging scale, but Netflix doesn’t value the high end of the Belonging scale. Rather, contribution is still king there. And, I can’t think of any organization that filters for the very low end of the Meaning scale. Most organizations don’t care that their employees don’t care as long as the employees produce.
At the risk of challenging even more conventional wisdom, I suggest you drop your review system all together. Consistent with Project Aristotle findings, how might you optimize for the group versus individuals? Most employee reviews are simply an opportunity to exploit power and control. The person in the power position tells the other what they should do to please them. They will use a technique like two strengths and a weakness, not unlike a boxer’s jabs before the power punch. The review process assumes the manager knows best simply because of the power they wield.
The alternative to individual reviews are disciplined team learning practices, consistently asking what are we learning about how we work together and thrive? How are we doing at belonging, meaning and contribution? Groups are smarter than individuals. These group conversations aren’t side events; the practices are built into the work of the group. And, there are still roles for experienced teachers and mentors to support individuals along their development paths.
In order for an organization to thrive, the structures and practices must reinforce caring, connection and contribution. All three matter, and one doesn’t matter more than the other. What might you need to change in order for your organization to thrive?