Communicate the Why for the Work

agile leadership clarity outcomes

By Julie Springer

June 15, 2022

An Increasing Desire for Work to Have Meaning

More than ever, people want their work to be meaningful. We have seen this with the “Great Resignation,” throughout the global pandemic. Even as we face increasing economic uncertainty, record numbers of people are leaving their jobs and looking for new opportunities. According to a Bloomberg article, more than 4 million Americans left their jobs in April 2022 – that’s one of the highest figures we have seen for 20 years.

“For many Americans, the pandemic has fueled a sense that life is too short to get stuck is an unsatisfying job.”

A recent PwC survey found that 1 in 5 workers plans to switch jobs in the coming year. While the top reason for this is higher pay (71% of respondents) the close second reason (69%) is looking for work that is fulfilling. Just behind that is the ability to be yourself on the job (66%). This shows that workers have gone through change, they know they are strong and resilient and they are taking ownership for doing meaningful work that they care about.

Certainly, looking for a new job is one way to accomplish this, but it is just as important to know how to find meaning and purpose wherever you go and at the job you are doing today. As a leader, you have a responsibility to understand why workers feel that their work is not fulfilling and to take action to change this. If you don’t, you are likely to lose good people who want to make a difference and care about doing a good job. 

Losing Sight of the Value of the Work

Why is it that workers lose sight of the value of their work? The challenge is that it’s easy to get focused on the task at hand and lose sight of the big picture. We focus on projects and deadlines and getting through the backlog but don’t effectively communicate the “why” behind the work. A couple of common patterns, or modes of working, that you will see when this happens are fire-fighting and order-taking.

Fire-fighting mode occurs when things are high-pressure. There is a lot going on, and to get through it you start being reactive to the issue of the day. You feel this as a leader and your team starts to emulate the behavior. You are all working very hard, putting in extra hours and energy, but your efforts are all over the place. It’s hard to slow down or focus and - although it can be exciting at times - it is ultimately stressful and overwhelming to work this way.

Order-taking mode occurs when your team is faced with an endless to-do list that just keeps coming in. There is no time or space to step back and be creative, so you keep your head down and do whatever is asked of you. The tasks seem disconnected to a larger purpose, and the primary goal is to not get behind. Workers in this environment start to not only question the value of their work, but the effectiveness of leadership. They wonder whether anyone has a larger vision or strategy, and they become disengaged and cynical. 

Shift the Focus from Activities to Outcomes

In both fire-fighting and order-taking mode, the focus is on activities and getting things done, without enough clarity on the purpose of the work and the outcomes you hope to achieve. To create a fulfilling work environment, you need to shift the focus from activities to outcomes and engage your teams in figuring out how to get to those outcomes. The tie between the purpose and strategy for the work needs to be front and center, and drive different behaviors, so that the fire-fighting and order-taking stops.

Shifting to being outcome-focused is a win-win-win for the organization, your teams and individual workers. It’s a win for the organization because you retain your workers and are providing more value for your customers and stakeholders when your work is driven by the end-goal. It’s a win for your teams because they can prioritize and focus on what is most important, improving their performance. It’s a win for individuals, because it’s more motivating to do meaningful work. It’s empowering when you can choose what to do, based on the end-goal, rather than blindly following a list of deliverables. 

3 Steps Leaders Can Take

To be more effective in communicating the why to your teams and helping people to find the meaning in their work, here are three steps you can take. 

  1. Over-communicate: Don't assume that people know the vision and purpose for their work, even if you have shared it. Over-communicate to provide clarity. Patrick Lencioni, author of the book, "The Advantage", suggests that you need to share important messages as many as 7 times, before they are truly heard and understood.
  2. Make it Safe to Ask: Invite questions about the purpose, value and priority of the work. Make sure that people do not feel that they will be judged or negatively impacted for asking. 
  3. Be Willing to Slow Down: Sharing information and listening takes time. Set an example and be willing to slow down, step back and get everyone on the same page. 

Combining these soft skills with a renewed focus on defining and aligning to outcomes can make a big difference in how people feel about the work, while improving the results of their efforts. For more guidance on how to get started with focusing on outcomes, see the article, “How to Shift from Measuring Activities to Measuring Outcomes.”

Receive Practical Tools and Tips

Start by downloading the guide: How to Use Discovery to Focus Your Agile Teams on Solving the Right Problems and gain free access to powerful resources, delivered to your inbox every week. 

You will be added to our email list and we will send you practical guidance and tools for Outcome-Driven Planning. Unsubscribe at any time.