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HR is incredibly meaningful, this is why

HRM looks at meaningful work, a concept that not only captures how people really think, it’s also key to understanding just how important HR is.

It’s a thought that occurs to us all. I am spending a third of every day working, and will spend a third of my life doing the same. So in a world that’s frequently indifferent, and a life that’s often tragic, how do I make that time matter?

Several speakers at the third day of AHRI’s National Conference and Exhibition took this question on.

Rensis Likert professor of business at the University of Michigan David Ulrich made people stand up and think (figuratively and literally, such is his presentation style) with provocative statements like “HR is not about HR, it’s about the value it creates.”

Aaron McEwan, senior director at Gartner, was also stimulating. He advised his audience to embrace cynicism and be practical. “We turn up to work because we get paid,” he said. But he tempered this with a reminder that the last thing HR should do, in this age of analytics, is treat people like robots or numbers.

But behavioural psychologist and entrepreneur Matt Wallaert, who has worked for several well-known companies including Microsoft, took on the notion of meaning directly.

Not that the audience knew what was coming. Towards the beginning of his talk, you got the impression you were about to be schooled in the dark art of behavioural science. Because he began with a focus on M&Ms. He dove into the research behind when, why and how you eat them. He pointed out proven behaviours about M&Ms that are baffling. “If I give you a bowl of just one colour of M&M you will eat fewer than if I give you the whole rainbow,” he said. He also mentioned that the choice of a new colour for the candy had greater voter participation than the concurrent US senatorial races.

The colour of M&Ms have no impact on their taste, so the silliness of all this is obvious.

But is that where the talk was going? Were we about to learn how to trick employees with ultimately silly benefits they nevertheless couldn’t help appreciating? No, something closer to the opposite happened.

What is meaning, and why do we do things?

Wallaert broke down the proposition of why we do things into two behavioural pressures: promoting and inhibiting. Promoting pressures are those that compel us towards an action, and inhibiting are those that push us away.

If we think about HR’s role in getting employees to behave a certain way, the first thought (and sometimes the last) is about compensation. You pay someone to do that thing you want done. But as Wallaert pointed out, “Not only is HR in charge of promoting pressures – such as compensation – you can be in charge of removing inhibiting pressures. And make it easier for your employees to work.”

It’s not enough to just want people to do things, and when they don’t do them to assume that all they need is more encouragement. “It’s not that people are lazy, it’s that life is hard,” he said.

How you should be thinking about employee benefits

For a real-world example of removing an inhibiting pressure he turned to the airline industry. When he began working with a US company, to his surprise one of their biggest problems was getting flight attendants to show up for flights. Their variable schedule and long hours meant they had less contact with their family, which was a tremendous inhibiting pressure on attendance, and a driver of absenteeism.

Wallaert’s suggestion to the company was simple. Allow them to bring families along if there’s a spare seat, or if there aren’t, offer on-call babysitters. Remove the pressure for them to not work.

In talking about employee benefits like that, he stressed the goal shouldn’t be 100 per cent take up. Instead, across the portfolio of benefits you offer, what’s important is that your employees find value. Crucially, some benefits are more effective at engaging employees than compensation – while also being cheaper.

To prove his point he told an anecdote of how he rewarded an employee with a pair of cowboy boots. The man called him, crying in appreciation, sincerely moved that his tastes had been noted and his work rewarded in such a personal way. “We could not have afforded to offer compensation that would have had the same effect,” he pointed out.

And while that seems like a one-off fluke, Wallaert disagrees. Getting to really know your employees is crucial, and it’s possible to scale programs that track their likes and dislikes, and tailor benefits and rewards to them (do they have a favourite sporting team? Tickets to a game will mean more than an equivalent amount of money).

How to bring meaning to your employees’ work

Wallaert explained to his audience the three factors that drive motivation in the workplace.

  1. Working with people you love, and want to work with each day (how many programs are there that attempt to foster this?)
  2. What you do on an hour-to-hour basis (is it pleasurable, are you helping to make it more so while removing tasks that are onerous?)
  3. Why you are doing those things (the meaning behind it all).


Because moment to moment happiness is remarkably disconnected to lifelong satisfaction and a meaningful life, it’s important that HR tackles both. He offered tips: such as letting engineers know how many people have been using their code, or giving employees positive feedback from workforce surveys, such as how many people mentioned them as their go-to source for expertise in their area.

“For you as an HR professional, the best way you can connect employees to what they’re doing is helping them tell your organisation’s story in their own way,” he said.

When an audience member asked, “What if you can’t figure out your why?” He replied that you should engage customers and potential customers, and don’t offer them solutions but listen to their problems. Discover what your services could be doing to help them, and relay that back to your organisation.

After a speech that covered so much more, Wallaert ended on this thought. Part of HR’s role is to help employees engage with their work – which takes up so much of our lives. “You are the stewards for the meaning of that time,” he said, “And if that’s your job, to bring meaning to others, how meaningful is your work?”

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Joanna Zolnierkiewicz
Joanna Zolnierkiewicz

It was a great talk, thank you Girard for recapping it for us.

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