People complain that their working lives would be better and more satisfying if only they had at their disposal a ready-built way to solve some of the problems that they see on the job.
With noses closer to the ground, it may be a persistent problem with product or service reliability; with managers who never get back to others inside and outside the company; with the big supplier who always sends a couple fewer than you ordered. Or more broadly, it may be how one of the minerals we use in our technology leads to a hazardous waste problem for end users, how we’re always promising more service than we can deliver at the price quoted, or how our company is sucking all of the high-skill workers out of the broader community and the pipeline is running dry.
Each of these problems has wider implications. They speak to the quality of big and small relationships we have at work and the issues of responsiveness, honesty, over-selling, environmental impact, and local citizenship that affect them. Moreover, each imbalance in these work-based relationships decreases our satisfaction on the job and adds to its shortcomings as long as it festers.
Is there a way-in for us to help address these imbalances from wherever we sit in our organizations?
The problems we know best tend to be the ones we encounter every day and dream about solving, not because we’re visionaries but because we’d enjoy our jobs more if we could make some headway in solving them.
On the other hand, someone above us in the hierarchy may be failing to address them, creating a potentially awkward problem about how we’re viewed in the organization if we raise our voices. But there is a daily cost in our silence too.
We’re always more engaged in our jobs when we believe that our efforts are contributing not only to company objectives but also to personal goals that are important to us. Our goals most commonly overlap with our employers’ objectives when it comes to building stronger working relationships within the organization and outside of it with co-workers, clients, customers, suppliers, and the communities where we work,
Why is our finding ways to help re-balance these relationships so important?
In decades of industrial work studies, one key indicator of job satisfaction has always been locus of control, or believing that you have enough latitude to influence the quality of your work experience on a regular basis. When that ability is stifled in key areas, it’s like putting blinders on the ways that you go to work, narrowing the range where you feel you can make any kind of positive difference. When that narrowing continues, it leads to resignation and disengagement. Instead of presenting opportunities to exercise your autonomy, going to work begins to seem like “going through the motions.”
There are several different responses to that kind of drift on the job, but I’d argue for one in particular: your sponsoring an invitation to a broader conversation that involves every constituency affected by a particular problem at work, both within your organization and outside of it.
It’s you taking the lead in bringing a particular problem into the open and offering everyone with a stake in its resolution an opportunity to find a better way forward. You’d:
-pick the problem whose solution would provide the greatest benefit to the organization, and make your best case for all of its stakeholders coming together to solve it.
-offer to help with outreach, with organizing the conversation, and with leading the eventual process.
This conversation may not solve the problem quickly but could be a fruitful way of bringing those with the most to gain and lose together while they explore longer-term solutions. In the meantime, your actions have declared that your job satisfaction is not something you take for granted or expect to be given to you. Instead, it’s a work reward that’s important enough to put your own stake in the ground by trying to improve the quality of key relationships that make you want to go to work everyday.
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At a time when more Americans are opting out of the blood-sport of national politics, it is no coincidence that there are increasing numbers of initiatives to gather input and solve common problems more locally. Many of us are fighting against feelings of disempowerment and resignation where reasonable discussion is still possible. That is often around an organization that is important to us as an employee, customer, supplier, or user.
For example, when tech companies like Facebook and Twitter (through their platforms) and Google (through YouTube) were challenging the ways that individuals like Alex Jones were using them to promote what they judged to be “detrimental messaging,” an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal recommended convening “a content congress… to shape content-moderation policies in a more transparent and consistent way” than these platforms making what seemed to be arbitrary decisions barring a user’s access. Because these are public platforms run by private companies, the authors argued that their users (and not just their internal content moderators) needed to “hash out best practices, air grievances, and offer rebuttals.”
Such a body should not be a legally binding authority but an arena for transparent coordination, public representation and human engagement in an industry dominated by algorithms and machines. Companies want feedback; government wants more insight into decision-making; and people want to be heard.
Working groups in such a “content congress” could consider how to deal with videos showing violence or death for example (should they be available when they show police brutality but not when they depict executions by extremist groups?) or the line that social media celebrities like Mr. Jones should be prevented from crossing when they’re egging on potentially violent followers.
In making their case for content moderation by all of the stakeholders, the op-ed’s authors highlight similar, broad-based problem-solving in other areas.
-Icann, the non-profit organization that administers the domain-name system for internet addresses, has always relied on multiple stakeholders (representing businesses, other nonprofits, activists and governments) to maintain fairness and transparency.
-The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority or FINRA increasingly addresses problems like the volatile, high-frequency trading that is automatically triggered by investment algorithms with stakeholder assistance. Instead of seeking new government regulations, FINRA has convened the groups that are most impacted to implement the necessary fixes.
Multi-stakeholder initiatives are rarely the quickest or most efficient ways to understand problems or try to solve them. But they are often preferable to “black box” solutions that seem arbitrary or government regulation from outside the industry groups that are most affected. Moreover, these cooperative attempts at problem-solving often have a positive impact on those who initiate them when they get to participate in the problem-solving itself.
I looked at some of the benefits of stakeholder problem-solving in a post eight months ago, but not as a proactive way to address issues that are important to engagement on the job or one’s satisfaction at work.
That post included a discussion about “cooperative work” that is not compensated with a paycheck. Some things that you do at work are within your job description and paid for accordingly, while other things like playing on the company’s softball team or contributing to potluck events are not, but you participate in them for their non-monetary rewards like improving affiliation and camaraderie.
I’d argue that sponsoring stakeholder problem-solving falls within this second, more voluntary category. It is not something you are supposed to do or expect to be paid for. Instead, you take the initiative because it’s important to your continued engagement with the job and to your overall work satisfaction. Your initial “compensation” is calculated in enhanced autonomy, improved engagement, and greater satisfaction as problems that affect the quality of your work begin to be addressed. Because the organization also stands to gain from the stakeholder process that you sponsored, your initiative may result in a raise or bonus, but that’s not why you initiated the discussion in the first place.
My May, 2018 post looked at “cooperative endeavors” like freely contributing to the base of general knowledge in Wikipedia and to the open-source programming of software like Linux, that provide additional unpaid compensations merely by being involved in them. According to an essay about Commons-based Peer Production (or CBPP), these contributions allow us to develop our capabilities to work together collaboratively “in ways that had previously been blocked… by chance or design.”
CBPP allows contributions based on all kinds of motivations such as the need to learn or to communicate. However, most importantly, a key incentive is the desire to create something mutually useful to those contributing. This also generally means that people contribute because they find it meaningful and useful, and they believe the resulting product worthwhile. Wikipedians and hackers primarily want to create something useful for themselves, and for other people, not for the market or for short-term profit. (the italics are mine)
This discussion highlights the independent rewards that come from bringing people together to solve common problems, like the joy of collaborating with others to do something that is mutually useful and beneficial.
It seems to me that “satisfaction from work” is not something that a job necessarily “gives us.” A paycheck covers our time and effort whether we were satisfied spending that time and effort or not. To at least some extent, that makes us is responsible for the satisfaction we derive from our jobs, and sometimes requires us to step outside of our job descriptions in order to secure it. We affirm our autonomy by taking control of our job satisfaction. When we sponsor a stakeholder conversation around a festering work-related problem, we stand to enhance our unpaid rewards from work even further, by collaborating on mutually beneficial solutions that can strengthen our key relationships on the job.
Our work isn’t merely our response to demands and responsibilities that have been put on us. It is also initiatives that we undertake without pay that benefit us as well as others who are impacted by the work that we do.
It’s acting like an owner of our work and not merely an employee. Sometimes that involves turning on the light on your front porch and inviting those in your community of work to sit around your table and help to make your shared experience better than it is today.
This post is adapted from my February 3, 2019 newsletter.