You’ve probably seen a bunch of articles flying around the internet about the “Great Resignation” by now. I believe one of the big reasons for the potential exodus of people from our workplaces is that they are feeling unfulfilled at work.
The rise of remote working has opened people’s eyes to the possibility that they can do work from anywhere. Remote-only companies now exist that don’t have much of an office presence. This all means that people are starting to feel as if they can have it all.
People can do fulfilling work for an organisation that lets them work from anywhere. They no longer feel restricted by needing to work in their local area or even necessarily their country.
Of course this isn’t the reality for all people, especially those that work on the front line in our hospitals, hotels or retail shopping centres.
Nevertheless, eyes have been opened to the possibilities for many workers. Feeling unfulfilled at work no longer seems like it has to be part of standard working life.
Learn More: Meaningful Work, the #1 Motivator (and How to Provide it in Your Team).
What Are Some Signs of People Feeling Unfulfilled at Work?
Sometimes, it’s really obvious when people are feeling unfulfilled at work, because they tell you. Other times it’s less apparent and you need to be perceptive to pick it up.
At any rate, even if you observe signs that people might be feeling dissatisfied, you won’t know for sure until you have a conversation. See if you can spot the signs, then dig a little deeper.
Common signs of feeling unfulfilled might include:
- Reduced performance. When work standards slip, sometimes there is a bit of “what’s the point?” happening. This can be a good sign that people aren’t getting what they need out of work.
- Lower “care factor”. Similar to a drop in performance is a lack of “care factor”. When someone who used to show great attention to detail or make sure things were done correctly suddenly takes shortcuts, this can highlight an issue.
- Constant tiredness. Sometimes people have a good reason for feeling tired. Other times, people are worn down for no apparent reason. Being bored and unfulfilled at work can contribute to feeling tired.
- Reduced participation. Sometimes people can still perform well, but they drop the extra things they used to do which made them feel part of the organisation. This might be participating in company or team events, clubs or learning forums. This “pulling back” can be a bad sign.
- Silence. When your engaged team member used to pipe up with opinions and ideas but now stays silent, this can be a sign of feeling unfulfilled at work.
- Attitude or moodiness. Irritable, frustrated or combative team members may be feeling unfulfilled at work, expressing their feelings in dysfunctional ways.
- Job hunting. Someone who suddenly has lots of appointments outside of work could be looking for a new role. It might not be all your fault, but they’re obviously looking for something different.
Any of these seem familiar? Start a conversation and see if you can help.
Learn More: Thoughtful Leader Podcast #71: A Simple Model for Team Motivation.
Seeing These Signs in Your Team? Here’s Some Things to Try
Just because somebody is leaving your team doesn’t mean it’s all your fault.
It could be, but if you’re reading this article, you probably don’t fall into the tyrant leader category. Many leaders are unintentionally causing people to feel unfulfilled at work, without being malicious about it.
But all is not lost. If you spot the signs and find out someone is feeling unfulfilled in your team, be thankful that you know before they pull the pin and walk out. It gives you a chance to act.
Here are some things you can try to improve the situation. And if the person feeling unfulfilled at work is you (not your team), then you can try them on yourself, too!
1. Increase the Variety
During my previous career in the IT industry, one of the things that I noticed was that many jobs were becoming more and more specialised.
When I first started in the industry I’d work in companies that had me designing the system, writing the code, testing it works and then training people how to use the system.
Obviously things have moved on since then, and there are benefits for having different specialist roles to do these varied tasks.
However, the problem that does arise from all this specialisation is that of potential boredom. When I was able to do all those different tasks, it was interesting. I might not have been as good as someone who was a specialist, but boy did I enjoy the variety.
Variety and Job Design
Increasing the variety of work for people in your team can be beneficial for motivation in several ways.
Firstly, it can improve Task Identity, which is the extent to which someone works on an entire piece of work from the start to the end. In my previous software example, I was involved in the entire process, rather than just one tiny part.
When people work only on a very specific part of a job, they may feel as if they are a “small cog” in a big business machine, instead of being a larger player in the organisation.
The second thing that variety can do is improve the range of skills that people can bring to the table. People are multi-faceted, and being able to exercise several skills instead of a single specialty can be beneficial for motivation.
How to Increase Variety
Improving variety sounds simple, but you need to be careful that you don’t compromise quality by having completely unskilled people doing work they aren’t qualified to do.
However, you could try:
- Having people work on or contribute to a slice of work wider than their specialty
- Helping involve people in team workshops or strategy sessions
- Encourage your people to work on projects that relate to your team. For example, your team might need to post articles on the company website or present at a company meeting. Or, there could be a company-wide project to implement a new system. Your team members could help to contribute to designing and testing the system or teaching others about the project.
Never forget to consider outside of work skills that people can bring to the table to increase variety in their work.
I once saw a brilliant example of this in an organisation when a team member who was an amateur artist was enlisted to create some artwork as part of a team project.
Learn More: Thoughtful Leader Podcast #38: Leadership Assumptions That Ruin Motivation.
2. Identify a Career Path
If you have no idea what your team members’ goals and aspirations are, you might be missing a golden opportunity to help them feel more fulfilled at work.
There are generally a few options your people might have in mind. They may want to:
- Take your job one day, to move up in the company and be the boss
- Move sideways into a different but related field to what they’re doing now; or
- Do something completely different from their current role.
Whatever the case, all of these options will require different skills.
It can be helpful to think about how you could incorporate skills that relate to their proposed direction into the work they do today. It’s not always possible, but you might be surprised at how this can work when you take some time to consider it.
If your team members don’t know what their direction is, it might be time to try to uncover some options by working with them. Let them try different tasks and see if anything resonates.
Remember: Team Member Aspirations Might Take Them Away From You
One thing that I’ve seen scare leaders is the possibility that great people will leave their team.
But that’s the thing about great people. They want to do better things and make an impact. If they stayed with you for the rest of their career, the chances are they’d just sit in your shadow.
If you can commit to helping your people develop and grow no matter what direction they want to take, they will put in their best effort for the time that they are with you.
Learn More: Coaching Employees? Try These Tips.
3. Learn New Skills and Apply Them
When people stop learning, they begin to stagnate.
Their skills become stale, their career progression may suffer, and they get bored. Then they start feeling unfulfilled at work and leave.
It’s important for your team members to keep learning, even if you need to drive the process yourself. Ideally your team members will be proactive and take the lead on their own development, but sometimes they might need a push.
The important part to learning new skills is that we can apply them soon after or during learning. Without this, the skills become useless, and all you’ve got is a nice certificate with no current knowledge to back it up.
Look for opportunities for your people to learn through courses, coaching, mentoring or working with more experienced team members. This will help to keep them fresh in their role and hopefully heading in their desired career direction.
Don’t Be Afraid to Innovate
Sometimes it can be beneficial to do things the “tried and true” way. Other times, it’s good to be flexible, to try new methods, tools and techniques to accomplish a task.
There are a million new technologies you could try to introduce in your team to shake things up. To accomplish the same work, in a different (and possibly better) way. There might be a new industry method which is out there that you could try.
It’s important to note that performance may temporarily suffer when you try new things. There will be a drop as your people climb the learning curve, but hopefully an increase will happen when they get to the other side.
You may even find your people put in extra effort because they’re more interested in what they’re doing.
4. Be Flexible
If the swing to remote work has taught us anything, it’s that people want more flexibility to work in a way that suits them.
Some leaders feel extremely threatened by this shift, because they can’t see the people at their desks any more.
If you feel threatened by the shift, this is a *you* problem, not a team member problem.
The world is changing, so it’s time to get on board or run the risk of losing good people.
To be more flexible without feeling like your team is out of control, you can try:
- Setting performance targets. If your people know their performance targets and what is expected of them, it doesn’t really matter where they are, or when they work. You’ll know if they aren’t hitting the mark.
- Being clear on what’s flexible and what’s not. We would love to live in a world with complete flexibility, but in reality we aren’t there yet. Depending on the work and the situation, your people may need to work in a specific way. Be clear about the rules and avoid surprises.
- Maintaining visibility and oversight. If you have no idea what your team are working on, you’ll feel exposed. Set up systems and processes so you can see the work allocation and progress against tasks.
Flexibility in the location, timing and method of work is becoming more important by the day. Don’t be the boss that puts up barriers to keep things the way they are.
Jill needs to start an hour later for 3 days per week? Lim needs to work from home for a few days? Sue needs to take 2 hours off in the middle of the day to get to personal appointments?
These things shouldn’t be the end of the world. Put guard rails and guidelines in place to help you lead in the new world, without trying to control every aspect.
Learn More: Thoughtful Leader Podcast #66: How to Feel In Control Without Being a Controlling Boss.
You Have a Crucial Part to Play If Your People Are Feeling Unfulfilled at Work
If your people are feeling unfulfilled at work, you’re in a good place to be able to help them.
Taking action could be the difference between a listless team member who leaves unexpectedly, or someone who turns their performance around and becomes committed to your cause.
Your people need to decide what fulfils them. But you can help them get there.
Have you been leading team members who are feeling unfulfilled at work? What did you do? Share your tips with me and all the thoughtful leaders in the comments below!
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