Tom Rath has spent two decades studying how work can improve health and well-being. As author of 10 books, including How Full Is Your Bucket?, StrengthsFinder 2.0 and Strengths Based Leadership, he has helped individuals uncover their talents, organizations boost their employee engagement and leaders improve their practices. Here he relates how focusing on contributing to the world can transform our relationship with work.
HR People + Strategy: Tell us about your latest book, Life’s Great Question.
Tom Rath: The typical relationship between people and work is not as good as it could be. Organizations and leadership teams have gotten good at extracting effort from workers each day. But is our life better off for being a part of this organization?
If we want to create collective health and well-being, the best place to start is a better, more productive relationship with work each day. Helping people see the contribution they make each day is one way of making that relationship with work better.
HRPS: How does the idea of contributing to the world relate to large organizations?
Rath: It’s up to us as individuals to ask the questions: How is our life better off through this work? Are we contributing with our work each day? Even leaders need to ask these questions. We all need to see the good that we do in this context.
We need leaders to serve as role models in this. Leaders need to make it part of the conversation with clients, customers and employees about daily work. What can I do today to make a contribution for the future? We need to think in those terms when planning our days.
HRPS: How can leaders use the concepts in your book to support their teams?
Rath: The way we form teams is less than ideal. We start with resumes, which are clinical and sterile, and then we bring together those with similar personalities. This new model I’m proposing helps break down each person’s strengths, talents and experience, but also adds in what they want to work on and how they want to contribute to the future.
It’s important to form teams based on complementary skills. It’s also important to have flexibility to work on different things. Leaders need to challenge themselves that within roles, employees should have the freedom to achieve their goals the best way they can.
The idea of fluidity within roles helps to provide that freedom, flexibility and control that each person wants. If someone is frustrated, they may think it’s time to change jobs or jump ship. But there is more flexibility in their current job and company than they may realize. How can you craft the job to be more of what you want? If I restructure my time or tasks or even the way I describe it, how can I make it work better for me and for those I serve?
Employees should approach leaders with those ideas. “If I could change my job in these three ways, I can be more productive, efficient or helpful.” What leader wouldn’t welcome ideas for employees to be more productive, efficient or engaged?
HRPS: What advice do you have for the next generation of leaders?
Rath: First, don’t give up on the idea that your job can serve the world. It’s good for society to have higher expectations and to look for more than just a paycheck.
Second, your career is a journey, not an endpoint of finding your purpose. I’ve never found my purpose but I’ve been able to make a contribution to the world. It’s ok to start out in a place that’s not your ideal. In the course of your career, sometimes you move forward, sometimes back, but you make small contributions over time that add up. It makes it easier to stay strong in the process when you look at your career over a long time period.
HRPS: What is your challenge for today’s leaders?
Rath: Look at your current job and future job in terms of what you can put into the world vs what you can get out it. Once you can orient your daily activities outward, it helps with stress. You worry less about what people think of you and it takes pressure off.