Most job descriptions are oriented around tasks and responsibilities. One requirement that you usually don’t see listed is caring.
Of course, we all know caring professions like teachers and nurses, but rarely is the expectation to care explicitly stated. In most cases, organizations see caring as outside their definition of work; it's seen as part of the candidate’s soft skills, not central to success, and at times, even inappropriate.
Companies often create an environment where employees are not given the discretion or tools to exercise caring. But as research shows, caring is key for employees to generate purpose in their jobs. In turn, a caring workforce is likely to be more loyal and engaged at work.
Call it a virtuous circle of purpose.
Finding Meaning in the “Dirty” Work
Researchers Amy Wrzesniewski, Jane Dutton, and Gelaye Debebe studied what are known as “dirty” jobs -- i.e., jobs that require physically or morally undesirable lines to be crossed. This doesn’t just apply to sanitation workers or morticians; it can also apply to roles like call center representatives.
People working in “dirty” jobs are often seen as having a hard time interacting with others, given the stigma of their work. Caring for others means engaging with others, and for many workers who do dirty work, they are expected to be nearly invisible within an organization.
The researchers studied the maintenance staff at a hospital, people who clean up after the sick, dying, and recently deceased -- a “dirty job” nestled in a caring enterprise. Research confirmed these workers are treated with disrespect; the medical staff devalues their work. The cleaners reported feeling invisible to nurses and doctors.
How do these professionals find purpose in their work? Research showed that despite being undermined, many of these cleaning professionals found ways to care for patients and find purpose in their work. They viewed their core job function of cleaning the hospital as elemental to the safety of those being treated.
For many, the main driver of purpose was when they went out of their way (and their job description) to care for patients, even at the risk of being reprimanded by their supervisor, responding to requests or taking on small tasks that the patients’ medical condition prevented them from doing. They talked to lonely patients or changed decorations for those in long-term care.
They weren’t simply performing their job description and clocking out -- they were taking ownership of their work and finding ways to craft their job to make it meaningful for them.
Beyond the Job Description
There is value in recognizing workers who bring purpose to their jobs. These employees can help encourage others in your organization to do the same, transforming your company culture into a culture of purpose. Here are three ways to get started:
Task crafting redesigns the tasks in a job, which include taking on more or fewer tasks; it can also involve changing the approach or scope of a task. As you observe your workers, adapt their job to make the most of their strengths.
Relational crafting involves changing the nature or depth of relationships with co-workers, clients and others in your work environment. This can come from simple changes, such as taking someone to lunch once a week, or trying to have more meetings in person, rather than over email or the phone. As well, give employees a context to get to know each other via social gatherings or volunteerism.
Cognitive crafting is about changing the thinking around the tasks that employees do. It connects what employees are doing to a sense of purpose. It is about remembering why they are cleaning the room, conducting an audit, or designing a website. Remind your employees why their tasks are important and encourage them to demonstrate caring in their work.
When done well, this process makes work substantially more rewarding for employees, helping you retain workers who may be on the verge of quitting, enabling them to find greater purpose in your company.
Adapted from, "The Purpose Economy: How Your Desire for Impact, Personal Growth, and Community is Changing the World" by Aaron Hurst, published by Elevate (April 2014).
Aaron Hurst is a globally recognized entrepreneur and authority on social innovation. He is the CEO of Imperative, a career development platform that connects professionals to purpose in their work. He is also the founder and advisor to the Taproot Foundation, where he was the lead architect in developing the $15 billion pro bono service market.
He is a member of the Nonprofit Times' "Power & Influence Top 50", and a blogger for the Huffington Post, Stanford Social Innovation Review, and is a Linkedin influencer. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.
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