How can we help employees discover more love in their work? HR can help them discover their ‘red threads’, says talent expert Marcus Buckingham.
The word ‘love’ isn’t often synonymous with work. Passion? Yes. Engagement? Sure. But ‘love’ is a word usually reserved for our personal lives. You can love your hobby, your family or your pet, but rarely do we hear people talk about being in love with their work, unless in a homily along the lines of, “If you love your job, you’ll never work a day in your life.”
But even that idea is overly simplistic. There are always going to be aspects of work that feel tiresome, boring and difficult to wade through. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who enjoys every aspect of their job.
Marcus Buckingham, talent expert and New York Times best-selling author says that, according to the Mayo Clinic, we need to love only 20 per cent of our work to reap positive psychological benefits from it.
“When you come to work, the activities you do need to be nourishing,” says Buckingham, author of the recent book Love + Work: How to Find What You Love, Love What You Do, and Do It For the Rest of Your Life.
“I chose Harvard Business Review as the publisher for my book because I wanted to rehabilitate the word ‘love’ in the workplace. Some people in HR struggle with that word. They dance away from it. But from the moment we’re born, we go in search of it, and we never stop,” he says.
Buckingham has spent over 25 years studying people who engage in work they love – from housekeepers to manufacturers. Many of his insights were cultivated during his time as a researcher and Senior Vice President at Gallup and, more recently, as the Head of Research, People + Performance Research at ADP Research Institute.
He’s fascinated about what makes people tick in both a professional and personal sense, which has culminated in 10 books, countless contributions to top-tier business journals and a guest spot on The Oprah Winfrey Show.
“When you interview people who are excellent at what they do, it’s always because they have love in it. When you’re doing something you love, your brain chemistry is the same as when you’re in love with someone – you release anandamide, norepinephrine, serotonin and oxytocin. It does good things to your brain. You feel safer and open to innovation and collaboration. These are all the sorts of things we want at work.
“So HR needs to get comfortable and serious with using the word ‘love’ at work.”
Historically, school, university and work environments have been quite loveless, says Buckingham.
“One of the reasons for this is because we’ve decided we want uniformity of outcomes. This leads us to think we need uniformity of method, processes and ways of thinking.”
This starts at school with state-wide curriculums and standardised testing, and we never really escape it from then on.
“In a work context, you could trace this back a century ago to Henry Ford and his famous complaint, ‘Why is it that whenever I want a pair of hands, I get a human being as well?’
When we want to produce a set number of products or services, we make the mistake of thinking we need everyone to do that using the same processes,” he says.
“We talk about things like values and mission statements, and everyone is supposed to have the same ones. Then we design competency models and measure performance against how closely you match that model. This has been designed before we’ve even met you.”
In these circumstances, someone’s uniqueness becomes a hindrance instead of the thing that makes them stand out. It makes people feel like they have to go against the grain to express themselves authentically, and that’s not something most people are comfortable doing.
Employers preach the value of diversity of thought, and yet, more often than not, they design work that puts people in a box.
Or, as we’ve seen in recent years, employers push against new ways of working – such as remote models – because it means they have to do away with their tried-and-tested methods which have held them in good stead for decades.
“Business leaders often talk about losing culture when people aren’t working in a physical setting, but what they really mean is that they feel they’re losing control,” says Buckingham.
“Elon Musk is a genius entrepreneur, but his statement, ‘If you pretend to work at home, you can go pretend to work for someone else’ is unhelpful.
“Over the last few years, we’ve proven we are grown-ups. We can figure out how to spend our time to be productive at home. Companies can be massively profitable without dragging people into the office.”
While employees may have been just as productive when working from home, they were perhaps more contemplative than before.
“Everyone had a chance to sit and think about how they were spending their time, what they were contributing and how the days were going by. While there were some difficult days, there were also days where we had a sense of clarity about what we wanted.”
This has fuelled all kinds of changes to the practical and holistic sides of work, prompting us to ask questions such as, ‘Why do we work?’ and ‘What do we want to get out of our eight hours at work each day?’
“In terms of other people’s red threads, you’re colour blind. A manager’s job is to be curious and to pay attention to them.” – Marcus Buckingham
Whether or not leaders are happy about it, these changes are likely to be permanent.
“We’re different people now. You can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube.”
While Buckingham says some companies are trying to revert to the command-and-control style of leadership, there are also plenty doing the opposite.
“They understand they need to build a talent brand that’s all about the uniqueness of an individual. They might be doing it because they think it’s the wise or moral thing to do, or they could be doing it pragmatically because finding people to join a command-and-control environment is going to prove very difficult moving forward.”
If we design work to be overly transactional or tactical, people feel like resources. They turn up, do what they’ve got to do (which is often the bare minimum), collect their paycheck, then head home.
“You don’t want people to spend 40-50 hours a week doing something that’s inherently transactional. When you study excellence in any job, you find unique human expression.”
Find your people’s ‘red threads’
Buckingham has observed two prerequisites for doing great work throughout his career: working in an effective team and being able to contribute your own uniqueness via discovering what he calls ‘red threads’.
Red threads are tasks that get you into the flow of work. Think about what you’re doing when time flies by, or the complex work that elicits excitement rather than stress.
“Your work is a fabric made up of thousands of different threads in a day. Some of the threads are emotionally neutral – they’re black and white. But some of these activities are red threads. They’re positively energetic for people.”
This is where that critical 20 per cent statistic comes into play. Each work day needs to encompass 20 per cent red thread tasks.
“When you’re doing something you love, your brain chemistry is the same as when you’re in love with someone … You feel safer and open to innovation and collaboration.” – Marcus Buckingham
Discovering those red threads is about fundamentally understanding the people you work with.
We have a tendency to want to categorise people, says Buckingham. You can either be an introvert or an extrovert; you’re organised or disorganised. We don’t always allow space to contemplate the amalgamation of our behaviours, personalities and tendencies, and the ways these form our identities.
“You share your race, religion and gender with millions of other people. But the uniqueness of you lies in this unbelievably filigreed and unique network of connections in your brain,” he says.
“There are more synaptic connections in your brain than there are stars and planets in 5000 Milky Ways. That’s an incredible amount of complexity.”
HR professionals need to help leaders and managers navigate that complexity and learn about their team’s red threads, he says.
“[Managers] don’t just have to do this to make employees happy – although it will – but we know people contribute more when they contribute through those red-thread tasks. We know that biochemically. Your brain chemistry changes in a positive way.”
While managers should assist people in the discovery of their red-thread tasks, they shouldn’t determine them on behalf of others.
For example, they might think someone loves analysing data because they’re good at it, but that might be the most loathed part of their day. If you were to design their entire role around this type of work, you’re essentially kickstarting a process of lowered discretionary effort and engagement, and you might inadvertently send them to the door.
“In terms of other people’s red threads, you’re colour blind. A manager’s job is to be curious and to pay attention to them,” he says.
“HR has got to give managers the right language and then some of the techniques, so when people come to work, they don’t expect 100 per cent love, but managers can help them find [that 20 per cent] every day. If you can’t, that’s psychologically and physically damaging to a human.”
How to reach maximum performance
One tool HR can pass on to leaders is the power of asking the right questions. For example, Buckingham suggests asking:
- What did you love about work this week?
- When do you feel you’re at your best?
- What tasks make you lose track of time?
- When did you last feel completely in control of what you were doing?
These conversations will have direct impacts on people’s productivity, he says.
“In the world we live in today, agile teams of individuals who are coherent in describing what’s unique about themselves and how they can contribute, and who can articulate that in detail, are the future of work – especially in a tight labour market.”
In order to allow ‘love’ to permeate throughout an organisation, we need to coach managers in how to consult individuals about their loves and loathes.
“It begins with HR helping managers understand the difference between minimum performance and maximum performance. Minimum performance in any job is homogenous – there’s only one way for a nurse to give an injection safely. In many jobs, there are minimum performance standards that need to be maintained.
“But if you want maximum performance, you’re going to have to pay attention to the individual’s unique loves.”
The most powerful thing a manager has is their attention, he says. And HR professionals need to help managers see that.
“When it comes to managing people, frequency trumps quality. Spend 15-20 minutes having these conversations every week,” he says. The communication model doesn’t have to be complicated… just keep it simple.”
What employees should take away from these conversations is that their uniqueness is valued and critical to achieving the organisation’s goals, whatever they may be.
“Everybody wants to have a chance to express what is uniquely them. And work is one place in which we want to do that.”
This article first appeared in the November 2022 edition of HRM magazine.
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