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Why employees have the upper hand now more than ever before

Today, if a business wants to be successful, it should pay attention to employee fulfillment.

Aaron Hurst: Thirty years ago or so, we started having this movement to talk about employee engagement, that the goal of organizations is to have engaged employees. And there's been a lot invested in this. Companies are measuring it. There's consulting firms that make all their money off of it. I mean, this has become sort of mainstream, sort of corporate employee measurement. We suspected that not only was engagement probably not the right way to measure this, but actually might be part of the problem when it comes to fulfillment at work.

So in this most recent study we looked at, sort of this question between what is the difference between engagement and fulfillment? And we saw some pretty marked differences. But we also saw that people truly understand the difference. So, when we asked people, would you rather have an engaging job or a fulfilling job? People overwhelmingly said, I'd rather have a fulfilling job, right? We also asked them, you know, how would you describe engaging work versus fulfilling work? And you saw it as completely different words that were used to describe them. One was about doing, and being busy, and active, which is employee engagement. The other one was much more about the state of being. It was about relationships. It was about the emotional relationship to work, which we know from psychology, is actually really what matters. And I think this matters in a lot of different ways.

I think one is, what creates an actual sense of fulfillment at work is the ability to reflect, and to actually process your work, and to think about it, and to create meaning around it. And in a culture in which we're talking about like being engaged, we're looking for people just to be busy. And the idea of spending time reflecting doesn't look like engagement. So, we're actually sort of creating this culture with engagement that actually gets in the way of employees being fulfilled.

One of the things that really distinguishes employee fulfillment from employee engagement is that when we ask people who's responsible for your fulfillment, so at the end of the day, if you're fulfilled or not, whose responsibility is that? And, overwhelmingly, again, people said they were responsible for their own fulfillment. That's a pretty big difference from how we thought about employee engagement, where the discussion has all been about the assumption it's your manager. It's the company. It's what the organization is doing for you that makes it engaging. That's a totally different approach to HR and leadership when you make that assumption. When you start off with this idea of fulfillment being your own responsibility, leadership is very different. Leadership is about enabling people to get out of their own way because people also said they were their number one barrier to fulfillment, not their manager, not leadership, they were their own greatest barrier. So leadership's increasingly about getting out of the way of people being able to actually realize that difference.

I think understanding the different between employee engagement and employee fulfillment requires understanding the history of how we even got to employee engagement in the first place. So if you go back thousands and thousands of years before any economy existed, and we were just sort of working in the Serengeti in our caves, like, there was no such thing as work. There was no such thing as a manager. These are all sort of human-made concepts, right? But we then entered an agrarian economy, where we started to settle down, build farms, and there was landowners. And then there were serfs and slaves, basically, to simplify it. And the basic way of thinking about the relationship between sort of manager, or management, and employee on that situation was really survival, because there's absolutely no power that the serfs and the slaves had. The power all resided in the landowner. And that was sort of the basis of that dynamic when it first emerged.

As we move into an industrial economy where you start building factories and cities, for the first time towards the end of that era, you started to see employees unionize and start to have sort of the first bit of power in that dynamic between people. And during that time, one of the things that companies want to avoid, obviously, was a stoppage of work, that there would be a strike. And we saw the development of a term called employee satisfaction. And part of the concept here is that if you can measure the satisfaction of employees, you can predict whether or not they're going to strike. And it became sort of a way of knowing whether or not you're going to have a challenge in your workplace and a stoppage of work. So we saw the rise of measurement of that. And there are some very positive benefits that came out of that.

We then move into the information economy, right? And we think about Silicon Valley. And something really fundamental, very fundamentally different happened here. Employees started to actually have way more power in the dynamic, right, because you had employees that were actually the means of value creation. The software developer is creating the code. It's no longer the employee sorting apples or slicing apples. It's about someone actually creating the code for Apple, right? It's a fundamentally different dynamic between the two. So as you start to look at that, but you want to still bring an industrial mindset to it, the question became, how do I get the most production out of each employee? So it's continuing that idea of like an assembly line model. But how do we optimize production per employee, which is basically treating people as human resources, right, and optimizing those resources? And we saw the birth of employee engagement, which was a measure of a discretionary effort. Are people doing more than I'm paying them for? Am I getting more output per unit of human being than another employer?

So, again, there's a lot of positive that came out of that because it was about listening to employees more. It was about trying to make an environment where people wanted to come to work to be more attractive. But it was still a management point of view about optimizing a resource. Fulfillment is a big jump because we now in the workplace have way more jobs than we have people, especially around knowledge workers. Like, there's such demand right now. It's so hard to fill jobs. And it's forecasted for decades to come that we're going to have a labor shortage.

Employees for the first time, and not for every industry and not everywhere, but employees really have the upper hand now. And the conversation has to flip from what is management looking for, what is their language, to a human-centered model, which is really around what do people want in their lives? What is it that people want from work? And you think about being on your deathbed 100 years from now, you don't lie in bed about to die and say, was I engaged in life? That's not sort of the time frame we have as human beings. You want to know were you fulfilled. That's sort of how we think about it. Did I have meaningful relationships with people? Did I leave the world a better place than I found it? And then, finally, did I push myself and grow? And these are the things that actually matter to us as human beings. And that's what fulfillment is about. So fulfillment is the first sort of human-centered way of measuring work. And it's also the first time we've actually looked at work as not just being about a human resource.

  • Employee satisfaction, as a concept, didn't emerge until the rise of the industrial economy and unionization. If employees were unhappy, management could predict a strike and stoppage of work.
  • Since then, the standard for management has been to consider employee engagement an accurate measure of satisfaction. Instead, research suggests the focus should be employee fulfillment: Do employees have the ability to reflect on and create meaning around their work?
  • Now, in the information economy, employees are often the means of value creation. This provides a unique advantage in which management must consider employee fulfillment in order to remain profitable.


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