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The Crisis of Meaning

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Alex Pattakos and Elaine Dundon
February 5, 2018

We believe there is a crisis of meaning in the government workplace. Many people across levels and functions of government have told us they feel something is missing: they report being stressed at work and unsure how they fit with their department’s or agency’s overall purpose. They are also irritated by their co-workers lack of empathy and trust and, overall, feel disconnected and not fully engaged. These feelings negatively affect the “Employee Experience” and, in turn, the “citizen experience.” Managing the public’s business in this kind of environment presents formidable workplace challenges not only within government but also between government employees and citizens.

Most solutions to address the less than optimal employee experience have been based on extrinsic forms of motivation: improving the physical environment, providing new tools and digital technologies to enhance productivity and distributing individual or team rewards. However, we recommend that it is time to get to the root cause of the low levels of engagement — the void of meaning.

The failure to enlist employees in meaning is the root of all engagement issues. Meaning is an intrinsic motivator and, as such, it is the most important place to start to improve the employee experience and, by extension, the citizen experience.

Against this backdrop, here are some key insights from our research, interviews and experiences in the field to better understand and deal with this crisis of meaning:

Although everyone’s situation is unique, workers often bring the lack of meaning from their personal lives into the workplace. They may not really know what they want in life so they just put in time at their current jobs, taking the paycheck but not caring about the work, co-workers or the government. They may also be suffering from exhaustion, dealing with issues in their personal lives, such as divorce, the excessive demands of childcare or caring for elders, or various health issues, leaving them with little energy to devote to and engage meaningfully with their work.

Sensing a lack of commitment from the organization, workers, in turn, become less committed. When the relationship between the organization and the work becomes more tentative, when jobs shift from full-time to part-time or contract work, are outsourced or simply stay vacant, it’s not surprising that workers adjust their expectations, become less loyal to one organization and don’t invest in building long-term, authentically committed relationships in the workplace. This contributes to a loss of meaning.

For those employees who source meaning from their sense of belonging and feeling part of a team or group, the increased blend of full-time, part-time, contractors and/or freelancers (known as Gig Economy workers) can lead to a loss of connection and, as a result, loss of meaning.

Exhausted by the constant change in strategic policy direction and program changes, some employees disengage and simply wait for the next change to come their way. They become more passive and the lack of meaningful connection to the work intensifies. Although it has always been the case, some workers may not agree with the political direction of an administration and even sabotage the agenda, negatively affecting the sources of meaning other workers around them have with their own work.

When employees don’t feel valued and don’t feel their work is valued, or can’t see how their work ties into the bigger picture, they lose meaning. Because work feels like just another task that needs to be completed, employee engagement suffers.

The pressure to do more with less and at a faster pace can exhaust employees. Rising expectations of stakeholders (especially citizens who are growing increasing used to constant communication, individualized solutions and fast implementation) can cause employees to lose their enthusiasm and meaning for the work.

Younger workers face their own lack of meaning in the workplace, often exacerbated by the gap between their expectations and the reality they experience. Some want high stimuli, fast-paced environments, some want more varied assignments, some want more flexible work arrangements, some want to be able to input more into policy or program development, others want earlier promotions to leadership roles. Expectations can zap the connection to meaning.

Older workers have complained to us that they don’t feel like they belong in the new youth oriented style of the workplace. This feeling leads to a loss of connection to others, increased uncertainty about their purpose, and a negative attitude about the workplace. In other words, there is a loss of meaning.

These observations are just some of the feedback we have gained from our inquiry into meaning in the government workplace. As we stated earlier, it is important first to get to the root cause of the low levels of engagement, which we firmly believe is the lack of meaning.

It is also important to discuss the various contributing factors to this lack of meaning, so that when we start to develop customized solutions, we are addressing the right issues. As we have found in our innovation management work, defining the problem correctly is critical to sending us down the right path to solving it.


Authors: Alex Pattakos, a former ASPA National Council member, and Elaine Dundon are the cofounders of the Global Meaning Institute (www.globalmeaninginstitute.com). They are the authors of three books on the human quest for meaning and innovation: Prisoners of Our Thoughts: Viktor Frankl’s Principles for Discovering Meaning in Life and Work, The OPA! Way: Finding Joy & Meaning in Everyday Life & Work, and The Seeds of Innovation. Their research and practice interests include the application of existential philosophy and psychology in government service and the “human side of innovation.” They may be contacted at: [email protected]

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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