Much is said today about the role of vision in the workplace. Unfortunately vision is often approached primarily as a tool to be wielded or tactic to be deployed – a mechanistic and relatively superficial understanding unsuited to the task of capturing employees’ imagination, enthusiasm, dedication, and commitment.
A client once took us on a tour of an 800-person plant manufacturing transmission assemblies for 18-wheel tractor-trailers. The machinery was huge and awe-inspiringly complex. But the manager’s remarks focused on a newly-adopted manufacturing process and the voluminous documentation it required.
Coming across a worker filling out some of theses charts and spreadsheets, the manager asked why so much paperwork necessary. The man spoke of things like ensuring quality and increasing efficiency, and the manager agreed. But there was more than that, he said.
“The reason we track these statistics,” he said, “the real reason we do all this stuff is that someday some trucker is going to be tearing through the panhandle of Texas at 2:30 in the morning, trying his best to make a delivery on time.
“He’s going to be tired and alone, and whether he knows it or not, he will be trusting us to give him a transmission that won’t break down. He’ll be depending on us for his livelihood and his safety, and we can’t let him down. He’s the reason we fill out these forms every day—because it’s our duty to take care of him and everyone like him.”
These words, far from a mere motivational speech or rousing pep talk, sought to invest an otherwise mundane task with purpose and significance. With just a handful of sentences, this manager offered an alternative – and and far more compelling – vision of one employees work, by placing routine duties within a context of profound meaning.
The importance of this should not be underestimated, for we all seek meaning in life. We all want to further something larger than ourselves. And when given the chance to do so, we will work committedly to advance an endeavor that we see as being of personal significance to ourselves.
Unfortunatley meaning is in distressingly short supply in many workplaces. And while employees with no sense of purpose in their work may well still follow directions, will still lift what they are told to lift and file what they are told to file, few will go much beyond that. Few will spontaneously give of themselves in those ways that make the difference between mediocrity and excellence.
Warren Bennis once that wrote that without meaning, labor is time stolen from us. And no one wants to work for someone who is stealing from them. Leaders that hope to create a workforce filled with investment, motivation, and ownership, then, have no choice but to find ways to suffuse their workplace with meaning.