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Meaningful Participation in an Age of Uncertainties

By Stephen James Joyce

"The only happy people I know are the ones who are working well at something they consider important." —Abraham Maslow

Everyone I know likes to think that what they are doing matters and that their contribution makes a difference. This is the essence of meaningful participation - making a difference with how we spend our time and energy.

The other day I overheard myself saying to a friend, "leisure and hobbies are for people who don't know what they are here on earth for." Pretty drastic, I suppose, and maybe not an entirely accurate impression of my own approach toward life. However, later, as I reflected upon the outburst I began to think of the absurdity of Mahatma Gandhi taking two weeks to rest up in the Caribbean, or Leonardo de Vinci taking a cruise to unwind. In one way it is ridiculous to make such comparisons and in another it brings into contrast the significance of what we are doing with our lives. If we are focused primarily on our physical comfort with no concept of contribution then we are defining ourselves by what we can consume (aesthetics, quantity, frequency, etc) rather than what we contribute. In this place of 'complete consumption' we are not only at the mercy of those that supply consumables (food, pharma, fashion for example) but also, probably not having a lot of time to create and contribute in life.

A few years ago I invented the word 'Plork' to express my enjoyment of my work. To me my work really is play (the sense varies of course from day to day - some are more plork than play.) The word took on a life of its own within our home. My children used to lament that their dad was working while they were relaxing and that it was a shame I had to work such long hours. One day I explained that I enjoyed my work so much that it was a form of play for me. This enabled them to feel better about their dad working while they relaxed.

So why is meaningful participation so important? For one thing it connects the 'small picture', where we participate in our work, with the 'big picture' that provides context and meaning to what we are doing. People are more likely to work on the harvest of a crop they have helped sow. We all know intuitively that when our work has personal meaning we give our energy and time more fully. Our work is providing us significance and relevance. It is tempting to think that material possessions can provide significance and relevance; common sense and experience constantly remind us otherwise.

Participation means people taking part. Of course it is so much easier to get people to take part when they know their effort is meaningful. This is one of the reasons that meaningful participation is so important to our sense of well-being. Just like wholesome food is good for our bodies - wholesome (think 'serving the whole') activity is good for us psychologically. One of the reasons volunteer work is rated as so satisfying by participants, is that it is done for the purpose of making a contribution.

Advertisers would have us believe that with sufficient physical comforts we will magically develop psychological comfort. I realize that I am not the first to bemoan the tactics of consumerist systems to have us believe we can scale the higher reaches of Maslow's hierarchy by slipping behind the wheel of our own turbo-charged, fully featured motor vehicle. Unfortunately the manifestation of psychological comfort has not been as straight forward as the advertisements have implied.

As we become more specialized in our professional activities we become more and more separated from the larger contexts that provide meaning to our activities. As soon as the question of relevance occurs we have to get our telescope (or is it a microscope that we need) out to search for the 'why'.

In the flurry of getting things done and meeting deadlines, it is easy to lose sight of the big picture. This goes on until we become exhausted and begin to wonder, "what's the point of all this?" This is where context becomes important. Meaning is being manufactured around us continually by advertisers, interest groups, and the media. These messages provide us only a synthetic context within which to make sense of all of our decisions (including the buying ones).

To establish meaningful participation it is imperative that we first recognize that meaning is indeed made. Our journey to discover meaning will take us far and wide, and probably into deep forests of theory, only to discover the further we go the less we find. This is where spiritual beliefs come in. They provide us with something to hang onto. Something that does not change day-to-day. It would be nice to think that we have put some thought into our choices in this area because they can have such a fundamental effect upon our lives.

A manager of a team of health workers described an interesting instance of unmeaningful participation. A team member calls the office to report that severe weather conditions were preventing her from turning up for work. This team member lived three blocks from work and stated that her car wouldn't start and that it was too cold to walk (it was minus 20 degrees C so she had a point). What she didn't give consideration to was that her team was already stretched very tight work-wise.

Long story short, this manager drove to the team member's house and picked her up. In the conversation they had as they navigated the three blocks to the hospital the manager discovered that the person had no awareness of the significance of her work. From the team member's perspective she just filled in forms and submitted them to a radiology office. The manager therefore explained that if the forms are not completed and reach the radiology department on time, patients' cancer scans are delaid and this could mean they do not receive timely treatments. The forms were saving people's lives. This whole chains of events relied upon the team member who thought it didn't matter if she didn't get to work. This team member was experiencing a lack of meaningful participation and the effects would have been felt by more than her team mates.

When we attach a great deal of meaning to something, like the outcome of a football game or our child's first spoken word, we get very excited and absorbed in the event. The same is true of our work. When we have a strong sense of meaning attached to what we are doing, we bring more of our attention and energy to it. Sadly, many people have been so disillusioned by their experience of work that, beyond a paycheck, they have stripped it of all meaning.

This is why volunteer work is so rewarding. As a volunteer we have chosen to discover rewards beyond monetary gain. We feel as if we have made a difference and attach meaning to that contribution. Something special goes on - meaning is being made.

So What are We Choosing Our Work to Mean?
This question assumes that we can choose the meaning of our work. One of the things that we so frequently forget is that we do have choice. It is easy to become distracted by the number of things in which we have no choice. There is an old story about a man who came upon three stonemasons - each carving a piece of stone. When asked what he was doing, the first man replied he was "earning enough money to feed his children". The second said he was "applying his art to the best of his ability". The third said he was "building a cathedral". All of the men had the same job - but the meaning they applied was quite different.

"Generation Y" is creating an impact upon the way we organize ourselves at work. One of the defining characteristics of this very large cohort (second only to Baby Boomers) is their concern that the company they work for has values that match their own. Also they need to understand how their work contributes to the organization's bottom line. In short, Gen Y needs to know they can make a difference; meaningful participation is extremely important to them.

The challenges associated with the imminent retirement of the Baby Boomers have been referred to a lot in the press and media. Not so much has been said about the significance of Gen Y and what they are looking for in a job. Meaningful participation is important to this demographic cohort and as such will play an increasingly important role in attracting and retaining employees for the foreseeable future. For them the question 'What does my work mean?' does matter a great deal.

Stephen James Joyce is the author of 'Teaching an Anthill to Fetch: Developing Collaborative Intelligence @ Work.' Stephen has over 20 years experience working with organizations in the areas of performance improvement and innovative solutions to the challenge of change. He achieves this by helping teams and organizations develop their collaborative intelligence (CQ). Stephen can be reached at: (toll free) 1- 866 - 912 5210. The reader may also wish to visit Stephen's Getting Clever Together blog.
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