When faced with any task — at work, at home, even at leisure — you’re much more likely to put effort into completing it if you understand the meaning behind it. As humans, we measure the time and energy (or quality of effort) needed for any given project based on how well we can connect the dots between the initial results and subsequent outcomes.
Take running, for example. Jogging a mile every day to stay in shape looks much different than training for a marathon. Both the casual jogger and the marathon athlete could commit effort to essentially the same task (running) every day for a year and have two very different outcomes. It all comes down to the meaning behind their effort — the “why.” Ultimately, the difference in outcomes is due to a difference in performance.
The same goes for employee performance. That may seem obvious, but to reach ideal productivity levels, employers have to understand the importance of defining the meaning behind work for their employees. Why? Because the meaning behind what companies do is constantly shifting, and workforces — like all humans — will measure their effort based on how well they can connect the dots. Secondly, companies have to provide their people with adequate tools to make progress. Part of the runner getting ready for the marathon is having a good pair of shoes, a nearby track, etc.
This isn’t to say that trendy movements, like companies defining their purpose, are in and of themselves make-or-break opportunities for employee performance. For employees to know what impact the energy they bring to work every day has — on the company and themselves — will help them be more focused on how they apply it.
With that being said, if the company’s “purpose” just happens to align with an employee’s, the employer will likely reap additional benefits (such as improved employee longevity). But what’s most important for performance is to ensure there’s an understanding of the company strategy and how employee development delivers on that strategy. That’s where establishing meaning bridges the gap.
Why does development matter?
If the strategy isn’t clarified, and employees don’t understand the meaning behind their work, the strategy is lost. When the strategy is lost, you risk providing a terrible experience for not just the employee, but the customer as well. The risk in getting it wrong is surrogation: when the metrics that were intended to measure success against your strategy become the strategy.
One good example of surrogation comes from the 2019 story about Wells Fargo employees opening up unauthorized customer accounts to hit cross-selling goals. Instead of enabling their employees to succeed against a cross-selling strategy by developing their skills, the company instead provided financial incentives for hitting metrics.
When the metrics became hard to hit with the tools employees were given, they found other — illegal — ways to get results. Maybe if the company had provided employees with better technology, tools, and training, their people would have been better enabled to execute the business strategy. Ideally, those three needs (technology, tools, and training) should all be integrated into a single digital platform designed to support the entire performance experience.
Technology for performance
Professional development reaches its full potential when employees are meaningfully engaged, have resources for learning, and receive ongoing support to improve and apply new skills.
When it comes to engagement, employee performance technology has to give employees the ability to easily communicate with each other, their managers, and the company in ways that are directly tied to goals and objectives. If your goal is collecting dust on a whiteboard and your communication is always via email, how are you creating a clear path to achieving it? How do you remind yourself of the meaning behind it?
Technology helps by digitizing and organizing each moment of development. Things like:
- Feedback from teams and supervisors
- Noting conversations, action items, and milestones
- Peer-to-peer appreciation
- Visualizing progress toward goals
- Rewarding success
Having the context from each moment in the development lifecycle always present, and a simple way of communicating these moments keeps the meaning behind work intact and upfront.
With learning and training, technology already plays a huge role. But for peak performance, learning content and facilitation of it must be integrated with the platform employees use to set goals and track progress. Through that connection, the system can recommend content that applies to specific goals — the meaning — and users can easily share new insights to inform others building similar skills. Additionally, being able to customize or create content within the platform improves the efficiency of learning by keeping resources relevant.
To sustain employee performance, an ideal integrated system would also need the ability to nurture growth with mentorship. Digital mentoring can use AI to match employees with a coach aligned with their needs and provide analytics to help understand how well they are progressing. When mentoring is directly integrated with goal setting and learning, every step forward is on a straight line to hitting individual milestones and executing the company strategy.
Enabling employees to execute
The meaning behind work doesn’t have to be grandeur, it just shouldn’t be abstract. By having specificity in the company strategy, you can better establish goals for employees. By providing the tools and resources to support them in hitting goals, employees can achieve peak performance. By using integrated technology to establish the strategy with transparency, set goals and support employee development, and track progress, you can better connect employee growth in a meaningful way, and better enable employees to execute the business strategy.