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Does your job add meaning to your life?

Does your job add meaning to your life?

While preparing for a talk to a safety audience, I ran across several videos by Paul O’Neil, former President of Alcoa, about why safety was his number one priority in managing the company. 

He summarized his management goals in three questions.  Actually there are four. 

  1. Are you treated with dignity and respect by everyone you encounter every day?
  2. Are you given what you need to do your work?
  3. Does what you do every day give meaning to your life?
  4. Are you recognized for what you do?

O’Neil’s goal was to have all Alcoa employees answer “yes” to all of the questions.  How would employees in your company answer these questions?

All of the questions are good but question # 3 is a great question!  This question hardly seems fair to ask in organizations with assembly lines or in any company with high rates of repetitive activity.  But I believe it should be asked of all employees in all organizations.  Since we spend most of our waking hours at work, wouldn’t it be great to spend it where the time there gives meaning to one’s life!  Another way to ask the question is: Does your job provide positive reinforcement in your life?

Many think that this would be difficult to do every day.  Of course those who think that do not have a complete understanding of the concept because everyone receives many reinforcers every day.  When the question of positive reinforcement comes up, most people think of social reinforcement or tangible reinforcement, when the most frequent reinforcement in everyone’s life comes from their own environment and is delivered by oneself to oneself. 

I believe that accomplishment is the most available, the most frequent, and the most meaningful.  By accomplishment I mean not just major accomplishments but the many tasks that one might put on a “to-do list.”  Each one of those tasks can father many sub-accomplishments or steps.  However, the most reinforcement usually comes from accomplishing a task while achieving a quality target of goal.  When I cleaned up my room as a teenager, I was usually in a hurry to complete it.  By rushing though the tasks, not only did I not create an internal feeling of satisfaction, but in no way did it please my mother. However, when I cleaned the room to my satisfaction (shaped by my mother) I would often seek her out to come see what I had done. Clothes hung neatly in the closet or folded neatly in the chest, bedspread pulled tight with no wrinkles, etc.  I have heard managers tell employees in an office or plant to “treat it like this is your house.”  This is not a good idea unless you know how they do the tasks at home.

I believe you can add meaning to everyone’s life at work by recognizing not only large tasks but small ones as well.  Any step towards improvement should be reinforced whether it’s a poor performer making small strides or your top performer doing what they have come accustomed to doing.  You can be a manager and not feel good about what you do on a given day.  But even if you are a line employee, you can strive to be the best in your industry and feel fulfilled in the process.

Posted by Aubrey Daniels, Ph.D.

Aubrey is a thought leader and expert on management, leadership, safety and workplace issues. For the past 40 years, he has been dedicated to helping people and organizations apply the laws of human behavior to optimize performance.


Question: I met a man who told me that he did not need any kind of recognition. He said he does things out of responsibility and conviction but not by recognition.

Thanks for posting this. I'd just add that our line employees report with high frequency that their work is meaningful to them. I'd change the last line to "Especially if you are a line employee..." They are the closest to the product before it gets to our customer and have the shortest route to reinforcement (i.e., change a control, see the immediate impact on the product) when compared to managers and corporate folks. In fact, our best employees have already figured this out: they create their own system of quality checks they perform on each shift so they can be "reinforced" for doing their jobs at the best of their ability every day - sort of like your bowling analogy.

Jenny, The man you met is unaware of the consequences that support his behavior. He may have developed habits at an early age under negative or positive reinforcement that have lasted into adulthood. If he had any in-depth knowledge about reinforcement he would realize that someone who does things out of responsibility and conviction receives much self-reinforcement from them. Being known as someone who does things correctly and punctually usually gets a lot of reinforcement. Even though he may shrug off attempts to recognize his accomplishments, he is still getting R+ for them. The problem with people like this is if they don’t get some external R+ for the behaviors involved in these two concepts, they will eventually undergo extinction.

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