How do you measure fulfillment at work?

Just earlier this week, I met a fascinating entrepreneur building a desk that you can love — because it helps you to stand more, and optimizes for your health and thriving (while you do work). He’s one of the designers of the iPod and iPad so he wants that kind of design thinking into your desk. Never once did he mention money and profits as the source of his fulfillment. He found meaning in the purpose, not in the profits.

What is a source of fulfillment in your life? Is it work? Or perhaps a non-profit you work with? Or perhaps the family you are raising? Whatever it is, I bet it is something you personally value. Sometimes that comes from our paid work, our careers, and sometimes not.

From my own experience of 20+ years working with or in “corporate” Fortune 500 work and in the research I follow — work satisfaction was nearly obliterated by the pressures of deadlines, of work that went no where, of overwork, of bosses demands that made no sense, of being told what to do without asking what you know that could solve the problem.

So it was through that lens that I watched this recent talk by researcher and professor Dan Ariely. Some of you might know of him — a behavioral economist who has written Predictably Irrational & Others. This talk is on the meaning of work:

Ariely points out that when we think about work, the “usual” thinking about motivation is tied to payment. In other words conventional thinking is that money is why people work.  He shares a series of specific projects he’s been doing that *proves* how much meaning, engagement and ownership change our experience of value creation. It’s a great set of stories about how much we care if someone will use our work, how much we fundamentally care about the thing we’ve made ourselves. Like I said in Social Era, value creation has changed; You don’t have to sell me the thing I helped make. In other words, when people co-create products and services, it disrupts the thinking of traditional strategists and their “value chain”. In the Social Era, value creation derives from commitment, not a transaction where the consumer is at the end of a long supply chain. Meaning, co-creation, overcoming challenges, sense of ownership, relationship to our personal identity, and — of course — pride all matter in how value is derived.

There’s plenty of empirical data to support the strategic direction Ariely talks of. Gallup, the research firm, recently did a meta-analysis across 199 studies covering 152 organizations, 44 industries, and 26 countries. It showed that high employee engagement brings an uplift of every business performance number. Profitability up 16%, Productivity up 18%, customer loyalty up 12% and quality up an incredible 60%. I wrote about that a few years back, here, in the piece called People are Not Cogs.

Seeing this talk has me thinking and asking:
How do you create your own pride, and motivation at work? Or, with your kids?
Are they one and the same, or different and how?
What is it you measure this value creation by?

Many times over the last few years — since I have moved from running a company to having a portfolio career — I wonder how to measure “success”. I can believe I am purpose aligned but still feel unclear if “success” is happening because I lack a “hard” metric. I’m sure I’m not alone in this. The reason many of us struggle with the meaning / ownership / pride thing is because it’s hard to measure. Which is why I think many  cling to the paycheck as a proxy for value creation measurement.

What do you think? What say you on this thread of how we measure fulfillment at work?

17 Replies

  1. To measure fulfillment is not, as you are pointing out, primarily about a quantity or an objective fact. Fulfillment is like wholeness or flow, a sense of being joined with the endeavor. I think all of us know it when we are in it. And its interesting how little it has to do with output and money.

  2. Agreed – once you have enough money to live without much worry (however one measures that for themselves), the actual work has a value of its own. For me it’s “am I learning something? Am I being challenged to think as well as do? Is what I am doing going to make a difference to something I care about?”
    If the answers to those questions are “not really”, but I’m still getting a paycheck, you can bet that half my brain is working on something unrelated but more inspiring – and that I’ll be making liberal use of all my sick days, vacation time, and yes even work time, to pursue that instead.

  3. Great article. Author Steven Pressfield captured the contrast between intrinsic motivation and external validation really well in his book “The War of Art.”

    Intrinsic motivation is a true inner calling. You don’t answer it by working/creating for external validation or measurement. You answer it by working/creating for You (or the “Muse within You” as Pressfiled puts it). Put another way, you do it because you don’t really have a choice (well, you do, but if you refuse the calling, you suffer greatly). “Fate leads him who follows it and drags him who resists,” said some wise person.

    So when it comes to “creating your own pride, and motivation at work” recognize that people are already highly motivated. We already take pride. It’s human nature. There’s no economic incentive or external validation that can change that. Even worse, when we begin to try to measure “value creation” of the inner Muse, we lose access to it. It goes from a work of love and purpose to a work for hire. The magic gets lost.

    PS. “You don’t have to sell me the thing I helped make.” is a fantastic quote. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Hi Nilofer,

    Maybe it is a good thing not being able to measure success. Maybe, success is not suppose to be measured…

    I think symptoms such as the pressures of work that went no where, of overwork etc., are caused by the lenses we have been using for such a long time. Our society has been so obsessed with achievements (quantifiable and tangible things) that we forgot that success (one’s life work) is the ultimate goal.

    I believe our obsession with achievement is deeply rooted in the heroic fantasy we all live in trance form. Every hero needs a challenge, an enemy, a strong spirit and the will to persevere. These are all useful and necessary things and they are abundantly present in the corporate world. But the part of heroic myth that we were not told is that without a transcending goal, the hero is a self-serving, egotistical individual. If we look at mythology we will see that it is the transcending goal that makes the hero likable and his/her story so compelling. I believe fulfillment lies in that part of the story.

      1. Yes agreed. For some time now I’ve wanted to return to this blog to its genesis…of conversation and thus learning and you just did that. Thanks!

  5. Great article and timing as I contemplate all this and more during a time of transition in one of the strangest job markets I have encountered. Thanks so much for this, Nilofer!

    1. Several years ago when I switched from CEO of Rubicon to this new life, my husband asked me one question… What would you do if money was no object. And back then we couldn’t see a way that writing made economic sense. I wrote for months with basically no one watching and then things started to build and today the new life allows monetization from things I would do for free. I share that story with the hope someone ask you that question.

      1. Thanks so much, Nilofer – I appreciate you providing your personal story. I have asked myself that many times throughout this journey and, interestingly enough, my personal “Board of Advisors” has held up that same question. I believe I want/need that one last “hoorah” in corporate. But also realize, there may be a message in me not yet finding the right people, culture, and role wrapped up together.

  6. fulfillment is a matter of the heart, that makes it hard (but not impossible) to measure. I can look at Salary or stock portfolio or book sales and make judgments about “success,” but happiness and satisfaction is harder, especially since it’s a moving target. That said, a certain amount of reflection and introspection can help us to at least understand broad trends and overall sentiment.

  7. I was at a resume writing workshop today. A large focus was on presenting individual achievement data and metrics in the resume. It just seems we’re trapped in this anxiety that we are mere humans and not fully efficient machine-bots yet. I just see so few work places who give anything beyond some illusory growth/productivity mindset. Of course, my dissatisfaction is quite a privilege compared to those who are barely scraping by to feed their families…Sigh.

    1. Oh, David – Wow, what a perspective to come from on this topic.
      For years, my blog didn’t list anything I had actually done or any awards I had gotten but I’ve come to see resumes as giving people easy handles to “get you” easily. This is not to me anything different than saying, say, my shoe size. If I don’t describe the thing, you’ll never be able to see me, and that’s the goal. Both of us have a part in that. So the metrics and data are for putting handles on what you’ve done. So people can see if you’ve done something say in the shape of a breadbox or, in comparison, the empire state building.
      But to me the resume isn’t a measure of fulfillment. It’s just a description of what has transpired, in the past.
      Fulfillment is the way we look at TODAY. That thing that either leads to the skip in the step, the sparkle in the eye or the dragging of one’s feet.
      Well, that’s my reflection from the moment. Let us know what that sparks —

  8. I recently asked a group of the most talented people I have worked with what they value in a career and “Making a Difference” was #1 by a large margin followed by relationships/respect and being challenged. Salary was far down the list. I think the comment from Social Era is correct “value creation drives commitment”. If you build an organization where the vision is considered valuable and then create an environment where you co-create the path to success then you are well positioned to have strong employee engagement. I’ve found that co-creation is engages employee’s as much as it does customers.

  9. Maybe I have a different aproach and opinion, but one point that has no price and that is the top metrics or KPI is to work in a place where you have pleasure to be in and to develop your work. You may think, create, innovate and add up to the Company / Organization.
    Currently we are facing lots of tools, methodologies, frameworks and so on. And most of us just jump into one of more those turbulent seas, not even thinking about our business and out role and ask: Is it really necessary for our scenario ?
    And the answer most of the times is “NO”.
    But our neighbors are doing, so I have to as well.
    Well, back to my answer >> the work, role, funtion has to provide me PLEASURE, and my thnking will work, for sure in a different way. Free to “walk around” weigh, and create.
    Cheers. Rui Natal

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