Money & Business

#AtWork17: From Disengaged to Purpose-Driven Employees

By / Oct 17, 2017 (Tim Ebner)

Day two of ASAE’s Associations @ Work Business Conference opened on Tuesday with keynoter Adam “Smiley” Poswolsky, a workplace expert and author who challenged attendees to create a culture of purpose-driven work in their organizations.

At one point in his life, you could count Adam “Smiley” Poswolsky as part of a troubling statistic—according to Gallup, nearly 70 percent of U.S. employees say they are disengaged from their job.

At the time, Poswolsky, who is now a workplace expert and author of The Quarter-Life Breakthrough, was 28 and working in Washington, DC, as a program specialist for the federal government. He had a good job and a great salary with benefits, but he felt personally unfulfilled.

“I was one of the 70 percent, and I think that should be a concern to all of us,” Poswolsky said, speaking to attendees at ASAE’s Associations @ Work Business Conference in Baltimore Tuesday morning. “Because it means that millions of people are waking up today feeling unhappy, unfulfilled, and sometimes depressed, not showing up fully for themselves, their families, their communities, or the world at large.”

It will take more than just good workplace culture to reverse this trend, Poswolsky said. Businesses and organizations of all types need to challenge employees with purpose-filled work each day. It’s a job that mission-driven organizations, like associations, are in a good position to do.

Poswolsky, who delivered the conference’s closing keynote, offered several lessons he’s learned to boost employee morale and engagement in the workplace.

Find Your Believers

Whether it’s a quarter-life, midlife, or end-of-life crisis, people at all career stages can feel detached or disengaged from their work. Encouraging staff to find mentors, either from inside or outside the organization, can be a great way to spark action. Poswolsky called these supporters “your believers.”

Associations can encourage these types of relationships by incentivizing employees to collaborate not just with a manager, but with other staff members who can serve as career coaches. These often are intergenerational relationships that benefit both employees, who can learn from each other.

At the same time, human resources staff can play a unique coaching role with employees, Poswolsky said. Too often HR is seen as the enforcer of office policies or annual reviews when they can offer more substantive support by tracking employee progress and challenging them to find new opportunities in the organization.

“It’s about encouraging your people to find alignment,” Poswolsky said. “An alignment between their unique gifts, the impact they want to have, and the community that they surround themselves with.”

Offer Ways to Do Meaningful Work

Most businesses today are too focused on their own agenda and not enough on the needs of individuals, including employees’ needs to do meaningful work, Poswolsky said.

At the same time, highly engaged employees are taking a “lily pad approach” to their work, learning from multiple experiences and jumping from one challenge to the next. The career-ladder model is a dated and broken concept, he said.

In the past, “we believed that you picked a major, entered the workforce, rode up the career ladder, and eventually retired,” he said. “The reality is, every six months you need to think about how your job is changing, growing, and evolving, even within a role.”

For association leaders, this means giving staff enough room to be innovative, allowing them to take risks, and providing them with enough autonomy to reinvent their position to meet shifting needs and goals.

Empower the Ask

Finally, associations need to get more comfortable making bold and specific requests of their employees, rather than letting them wallow in unfulfilling work, Poswolsky said.

“Ask: What is that personal addition that they bring to the table? And ask them to provide value or always be adding value,” he said.

Often these conversations can incentivize staff to focus on a specific in-house passion project. Poswolsky calls these employees “intrapreneurs” because they figure out dynamic ways to innovate within the organization.

“The greatest opportunity is to find purpose-driven employees,” he said. “Allow them to find their believers. Allow them to find their alignment. And allow them to find that personal addition or gift that they bring to the table.”

Tim Ebner

Tim Ebner is a senior editor for Associations Now. He covers membership, leadership, and governance issues. Email him with story ideas or news tips. More »

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