Being great at your work vs. feeling great about your work

If we want to be happy in our jobs, we need to be good at our jobs.

We human beings have a basic need to know that we contribute, create value and can make a difference and effect change in our environment.

That’s why doing a good a job feels amazing. It gives us feelings like pride, accomplishment, fulfilment, growth and worth.

On the other hand, when we feel that we don’t perform well at work, it creates feelings like inadequacy and lack of control plus of course fear that we might lose our jobs.

And it’s also in the company’s best interest to make sure that every single employee and team is getting great results and living up to their potential. Companies typically focus on 4 areas to make that happen:

  • Skills: Training, competencies, job skills match,  …
  • Resources: Time, tools, IT-systems, …
  • Structure: Organization, plans, goals, budgets, strategy, processes, …
  • Support: Coworker+manager support, coaches/mentors, …

These are all important and enable us to get results. If your workplace is not giving employees these 4 things, then how on earth can you expect them to perform well?

If we want people to be happier at work, we can definitely help them get better results. We can give them better training, more resources, more support, etc. in order to help them perform better.

However, many people already get great results – but don’t feel that way. And if that’s the case, then they won’t be very happy at work.

This is a crucial distinction that few companies make – the distinction between getting good results and feeling good about those results. If we want employees to be happy at work, they also need the latter - and many don’t have that.

When that is the case, employees may get great results right now but it won’t be sustainable. When people are not happy at work, it hurts their motivation, productivity and creativity. Stress and burnout tend to follow.

So in addition to helping employees get great results, companies also need to make sure that people feel great about their results.

There are 3 things that give us that feeling of results.

1: Meaning

I saw this sign in the lobby of Danish pharmaceutical company Xellia, carrying probably the simplest and most inspiring company purpose I’ve ever seen.

As you may know, one of the biggest current medical crises is the increasing risk of infection by multi-resistant bacteria, which are immune to traditional antibiotics. Xellia produces an antibiotic that is still effective against multi-resistant bacteria. Their research and products directly saves lives all over the world.

It’s crucial that we know what we have to do at work, but  equally crucial that we know why we do it.

That is what gives work meaning and purpose: when you know why you do each task and how it somehow helps someone.

And it’s not enough that your work is meaningful to the organization – it must be meaningful to you. Your work must have a purpose that you believe is worthy.

On the other hand, if you have no idea why your work matters and no sense that it makes any kind of a difference, it really doesn’t matter how good you are at your job – you won’t be very happy.

Many workplaces take great pains to give employees performance goals to clearly show them what they are expected to do. But we must make equally sure to show employees why their work matters and how it makes a positive difference.

US online retailer Zappos are a great example of this. Whereas most customer service reps are measured on how many calls/emails they handle, Zappos’ employees are measured primarily on how happy they make their customers. The former metric makes sense only to the company, the latter is meaningful for employees too because it shows them that they make a positive difference for the customers.

2: Autonomy

When you are free to do your job your way, you are much more likely to take pride in your results and feel good about them.

On the other hand, if a micro-managing boss is telling you exactly what to do, how to do it and when to do it, you are much less likely to feel good about the results you get, because they won’t be your results.

As much as possible, we should be free to choose:

  • What we work on
  • Who we work with
  • What approaches and methods to use
  • When and where we work

One of my favorite examples of this is Middelfart Savings Bank in Denmark, one of the happiest workplaces in Europe. How did they achieve that? They gave their employees huge levels of freedom and responsibility. Their former HR directors said this:

“You’d be amazed what happens once people are empowered to make decisions.”

Another amazing example comes from the US Navy, where nuclear submarine captain David Marquet gave his sailors unprecedented autonomy. He explained how he did it at our conference in 2015:

3: Appreciation

And finally, we feel good about the work we do when we are recognized for it.

Harvard Business School professors Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer talk about this in their awesome book The Progress Principle. They sum up the book’s main message like this:

Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work.

Even a small win can make all the difference in how people feel and perform.

Creating a culture of positive feedback in an organization is one of the simplest and most powerful ways to give employees a feeling of results.

When your coworkers, your boss or even the customers praise your good work, it clearly shows that you make a difference and get great results.

On the other hand, if you feel you do good work but nobody ever notices, it becomes much harder to maintain pride in your work. Some companies even take it a step further – they never praise good work, but all mistakes are instantly and severely punished.

Our absolute favorite way to praise others at work is The Poncho. Try it!

The upshot

It’s not enough to help employees get great results – we must help them get a feeling of results.

Of course we first need them to do good work. No one should expect to feel good about their work, if they’re not doing a very good job in the first place.

But that’s not enough.

Happiness at work only comes when people know that their work has meaning and purpose, when they have freedom and autonomy in how they work and when they are appreciated and recognized for their good work.

Imagine the opposite. Imagine that you’re very good at your job and get great results. But you have no idea why any of your tasks matter, somebody else has decided how you work on those tasks leaving you no freedom and autonomy and you are never recognized for any of your efforts.

How happy could you be at work under those conditions? How good would your results be in the long run? How soon would you lose all motivation and burn out?

So improving how people feel about their results is crucial.

It’s also a lot easier. Provided a person is very good at their job already, improving their feeling of results may be a lot faster and easier than improving their actual results.

It’s also a lot more effective, because if we can’t figure out how to make people feel proud and appreciated about their work, it doesn’t matter how stellar their results are – they will never be happy at work and their performance will ultimately suffer.

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