Why do people work? Or, put differently, towards what do people work?
Most employees, if asked about their job, will describe the tasks they perform. “I keep the president’s calendar and make her travel arrangements,” they might say, or “I oversee maintenance and repair of the company’s network servers.”
If you press further, asking what they are trying to achieve by those tasks, many will hesitate or stumble, not because they don’t want to explain, but because they have little sense of their work being connected to any larger goals.
Moreover, a distressing number will suggest that their primary concern is simply getting from one day to the next — “I’m trying to stay out of trouble, that’s what I’m trying to achieve.”
Issues of meaning and motivation can be complex in the workplace. One feature, though, is clear. In the absence of a compelling vision of the future, organizational functioning tends to become highly dependent on, and defined by, formal job descriptions.
Within such environments –ultimately created or allowed by leaders — people perform tasks not to accomplish goals or aims, but simply to discharge the responsibilities of their position.
Under the influence of a workplace culture like this, the office manager orders supplies not to assist in providing better service to clients, but because that’s what the office manager does. The department head holds weekly meetings not to inspire or direct the team she oversees, but because that’s what a department head does.
Job descriptions are, of course, useful and necessary tools. Their utility, however, should not obscure the fact that over-reliance on them tends to inhibit awareness of, and ownership in, the wider goals they are meant to further.
Unless job descriptions are supported by a clear, compelling, and emotionally-resonant vision of the future, organizations will struggle to reach their full potential, despite even furious levels of activity.
It is important to also note that an industry’s arena of functioning does not, in itself, provide any reliable sense vision. Healthcare facilities and social service agencies pursue unquestionably commendable missions. But such organizations can be as mechanical and task-oriented as any machine shop or manufacturing plant.
Put simply, vision is endemic to no class of organization. It’s benefits can be realized only when created through the energy and attention of consciously committed leaders.