Can We Become Limitless at Work?

Workers are dissatisfied, but they can’t quite put their fingers on why. Laura Gassner Otting shares how leaders can more deeply engage their employees to not only make them limitless but make their companies and their profits limitless too.

Author: Magdalina Atanassova       

Woman smiling, brown hair

Laura Gassner Otting on employee disenchantment: “The problem isn’t that our team members don’t understand what to do. The problem is that less than half of them can connect work they do to what really matters to them, and even less feel empowered to ask their bosses for more clarity.”

Demographic shifts in the workforce have led to conversations about purpose and meaning that have heretofore never been had, according to executive coach Laura Gassner Otting. Millennials, Gen Xers, and Boomers alike are all demanding that their work matters more, she said. And yet, only one-third of the U.S. workforce reports that they are actively engaged in their work.

Otting thinks we are using an outdated scorecard which measures the value of a job — title, money, prestige, among others — without adding in the most important part of the equation: the employee. Author of Limitless and Wonderhell, Otting is a keynote at the upcoming PCMA Foundation Partnership Summit 2023, an invitation-only event that will take place Sept. 28-Oct. 1 in Panama City, Panama. Convene reached out with a few questions in anticipation of her session titled “Limitless Leadership.”

What is driving employee dissatisfaction, disengagement, and disillusionment today? What do employers need to do about it right now to address these issues?

Many of us woke up at the end of the pandemic and asked ourselves, “When life returns to normal, is the ‘normal’ I’m returning to really the life I want?” The answer, for the dissatisfied, disengaged, and disillusioned was a resounding “No!”

Interestingly enough, these issues didn’t start with the pandemic. In an ongoing assessment we run — started in January 2019, and from which we have 6,000 responses from 74 different countries in every possible vertical and demographic — we have seen very little change in dissatisfaction, disengagement, and disillusionment at all. These issues were around before, but we are only just now having a conversation about them.

Leaders complain that workers don’t seem to know what to do or pursue their goals with confidence and tenacity. But what we found is that the problem isn’t that our team members don’t understand what to do. The problem is that less than half of them can connect work they do to what really matters to them, and even less feel empowered to ask their bosses for more clarity. And this leaves them full of doubt, uncertainty, insecurity, and indecision, even if they are still successfully meeting their marks.

What should be the one action that employers need to take now to reignite the passion of their employees?

Employers should toss the old scorecard of what we were taught makes a good job good, things like the mission of the organization, the inspirational qualities of the leader, how prestigious the job will look on your resume, the set of skills you will learn, and so forth. Money is, of course, on this list, too. But each of us prioritizes this list differently.

In my two decades in recruiting, what I found was that it wasn’t the list of what makes a good job good that matters, it was how we each, individually, prioritized this list. Employers keen on reigniting the passion of their employees should stop assuming that everyone prioritizes their list the same and make space to understand what gives their workers consonance, which is a personal sense of alignment and flow that allows us to show up as the very best version of ourselves. It’s what I’ll be talking about at PCMA, and I can’t wait to share it.

But here’s a sneak peek: Rather than assuming that your workers are all defining success the same, take a moment to learn how much calling, connection, contribution, and control they want in their lives. Calling is their desire for a grander gravitational force that gets them out of bed, like a business they want to build, a leader who inspires them, a cause they want to serve, a family they want to nurture. Connection is their need to know how much their day-to-day work connects to the bigger picture. Contribution is how this job, this brand, this association, this paycheck will allow them to have the lifestyle they want, enjoy the flexibility they need, build the career they seek, or manifest the values they wish. And control encompasses how much personal agency they have to inform the way that their work connects to their calling and contributes to their lives in terms of the projects to which they are assigned, the people with whom they work, and the money that their hustle earns them.

How can companies help employees find their work more meaningful?

One of the biggest mistakes that leaders make, and one that I made for far too many years, is to get in front of the all-hands gathering and talk about the exciting big picture world that is to come. Yes, it seems like a great idea to bring everyone into the C-suite and share the overall direction. But most leaders make the critical mistake of then not connecting this big picture vision to the workers and their day-to-day concerns.

Much like Charlie Brown’s teacher who could only be heard as “blah blah blah,” workers listen to these “exciting” visions and glaze over because, for the most part, the leader’s exciting vision means nothing to them. All they are thinking is, “Well, that’s all well and good, but how does this concern me? Will I still have a job next year? Am I going to have to do more work for the same pay? And does this mean I’m not going to be able to take my kid to soccer on Thursday afternoons?”

If we skip that critical step of connecting their work to the bigger picture, employees won’t be able to do it for us. And, instead, they’ll search for meaning elsewhere.

Magdalina Atanassova is digital media editor of Convene.

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