Here's how to find 'greater meaning in the workplace'

In a post-pandemic world, finding your place and purpose at work can be fraught.

That’s the perception from Michelle King, a workplace culture expert and author of the new book, "How Work Works: The Subtle Science of Getting Ahead Without Losing Yourself." King has spent her two-decade career extensively researching office politics and is founder of The Culture Practice, a global consulting firm.

"Today we are less concerned with finding a path to the top of an organizational hierarchy and more concerned with finding the path to greater meaning in the workplace, and, by extension, life itself," she said.

Recently, King discussed with Yahoo Finance her insights into the moves that can help people gain traction in today’s rapidly changing workplace.

Edited excerpts:

So Michelle, how can people make work work for them?

The first thing is recognizing what matters to you at work. People have three basic needs. One is to feel competent in what they do. Another is to connect with other people, and to have a certain degree of freedom, or autonomy, over their work.

To make your workplace work for you, you have to know how to meet those needs. The reality is we have to find ways to find our work meaningful beyond a set of tasks that we undertake.

Find ways to pay it forward. The more you help your colleagues out, and the more you engage in small acts that are helpful, you will derive greater meaning at work.

Find ways to understand and manage the informal side of work, which includes your interactions with others. Find ways to build meaningful, mutually beneficial relationships.

Photo courtesy of Michelle King
Photo courtesy of Michelle King. Credit: That Wild Road Photography (That Wild Road Photography)

There’s an undercurrent in today’s workplace that makes people reluctant to embrace their jobs. What’s up?

Somewhere along the way it's become a little bit uncool to care about work. We see this with the quiet quitting phenomenon. We see this with the lazy girl job and now the snail girl job. All of these are popular trends to try and push back on work. What we miss is that we are our workplaces.

It's a really sad state where there's this sense of "I need to find a job where I can do the bare minimum." It's a backlash from employers because workplaces have such high rates of burnout, particularly for women. There are really high workloads, a lack of job clarity, and toxic workplace behaviors such as lack of inclusion.

All of this points to the need for people to have greater connection and fulfillment at work. It's not about quietly quitting, it's actually about how do I derive greater meaning and fulfillment from work?

What role does success play in our work?

When you leave your job, or at the end of your career, how will you feel? Most of us think about what we want to achieve, but we don't always think about how we want to feel.

The root of the word for success in Latin means exodus. It means to exit. Success when you leave a job should be: What do you leave behind? What is the contribution you make beyond the tasks?

When it comes to career success, it's about: Have I made a contribution beyond just a job title or a paycheck? Often we don't think about it until it's too late. You get to the end of your career having chased one job after another and can feel unfulfilled.

Our definition of career success has changed because careers have. Increasingly careers are sort of boundary-less and self-managed. There isn't this linear career path. A title, or a salary, isn't enough. That’s not going to cut it for most people.

Michelle King
Michelle King (Michelle King)

You say that the secret to career advancement is the Japanese expression, 'Kuuki wo yomu,' which roughly means 'read the air.' How so?

We all know somebody who's advanced at work, and they might be pretty average at their job. They might not have all the degrees or years of experience. And you wonder how they got that promotion.

What research finds is that the most significant factor in determining whether somebody gets ahead at work is their ability to read the air. It’s about understanding how to value the people you work with, how to manage your interactions with them, and how to meet their needs.

It requires the ability to collaborate with others. Collaboration is king.

For example, companies will often have organizational structures, but sitting alongside that are informal networks. The single most important thing you can do to future-proof your career is diversify your network.

That means spending time, investing, connecting, and building relationships with people who don't look like you and don't share your background. Roughly 70% of jobs come through the informal network.

How do people who feel connected to their colleagues achieve career aspirations faster?

If you're a hiring manager [and] you have a job vacancy, the first thing you're going to do is — even if you advertise it, even if you go through a formal process — you're going to reach out to people and say, "Hey, do you know anybody?" You're going to reach out and tap on the shoulders of people you trust and see if they're interested in the role. That's how the informal network works.

Managing your own informal network should be the number one priority for everybody. Write a list right now of anyone you go to for informal information on how to do your job, advice at work, social support for when you're having a bad day or are struggling with something.

Anyone who fits one or all of those categories is part of your informal network. And your job is to look at that list and think how different or similar is everybody on that list to me? Because if it's fairly similar, you need to diversify your network.

Can you elaborate on the role of self-awareness and reflecting?

When it comes to self-awareness, there can be a gap between how you see yourself in terms of your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors and how other people experience it.

We're in a bit of a weird space at the moment where people want to be authentic, but that's a very dangerous game. It's not about just going to work and being yourself. You have to manage the impact your behavior has on others.

The higher up in organization you go, the less self-aware people are. They overestimate their positive impact. There's a real disconnect with people not understanding how their actions can negatively impact somebody else's lived experience of work.

We must start to build people's self-awareness. The starting point for that is self-reflection. Reflecting is as simple as taking a few minutes each day to think about what you did at work and how you did it. This includes considering what you could do to improve rather than spending hours examining why you do what you do.

For a 10- day period, take 15 minutes a day and ask yourself what questions. What worked? What didn't? What could I do differently? If you just spend about five minutes on each of those questions and you do that for 10 days, research finds you'll increase your self-awareness.

At work, when you finish a presentation, a pitch, a client meeting, just turn to the person who you work with and say, what worked, what didn't, what could I do differently? Do that in the moment and use that as data as evidence to inform what you think you can improve on.

(Getty Creative)
(Getty Creative) (BongkarnThanyakij via Getty Images)

You have an issue with why questions, can you explain?

People who ask why questions spend a huge amount of time in that sort of analysis paralysis place. They make up all sorts of stories about what's happening. You can externalize what's going on, so you don't really take accountability and change any of your behavior.

You write about the Japanese concept of Ikigai, which means your reason for being or your purpose in life, toward the end of the book. How does that fit into the new world of work?

It's about really finding meaning beyond the task. It’s the importance of understanding why you do what you do, why it matters. When you answer those questions, you end up with your ikigai — your why for work. That is your north star that guides the decisions you make around your career.

Kerry Hannon is a Senior Reporter and Columnist at Yahoo Finance. She is a workplace futurist, a career and retirement strategist, and the author of 14 books, including "In Control at 50+: How to Succeed in The New World of Work" and "Never Too Old To Get Rich." Follow her on Twitter @kerryhannon.

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