Is your organization’s culture languishing, too?

Employees are yearning to connect the meaning and purpose they find in their own lives to their careers — it’s up to organizations to help them make that connection.

In April 2021, after more than a year of pandemic life, a New York Times article resonated with readers around the world. “There’s a Name for the Blah You’re Feeling: It’s Called Languishing,” wrote Adam Grant, describing a term coined by sociologist Corey Keyes.  

Grant’s article also hit home with employers, who saw signs of languishing at work. HR executives knew it from the data: More time was needed for short-term disability, and a skyrocketing number of workers were utilizing employee assistance programs. Supervisors noticed decreased engagement. And colleagues gingerly stepped around their co-workers’ short fuses and general exhaustion. 

Gradually, this sense of malaise morphed from an individual level to an organizational level, as corporate cultures also began to languish. After months of surviving rather than thriving, employees have a strong desire to connect the meaning and purpose they find in their own lives to their careers — it’s up to organizations to help them make that connection.

Leverage resilience practices to shift from surviving to thriving 

When people’s values and principles are aligned with their daily activities, they’re naturally more engaged and resilient. They’re better equipped to weather difficult times because they know their actions are tied to their sense of identity and a greater purpose.  

There’s been a lot of discussion about the importance of resiliency in the workplace. But until now, the onus and focus have largely been on individuals. Pre-pandemic, HR leaders may have encouraged their employees to engage in wellness practices – such as exercising and getting enough sleep – but without executive sponsorship and a deliberate intention to shift cultural norms, efforts lacked sustainability.  

The pandemic brought clear recognition that employees need the support of their organizations to maintain resiliency and move beyond the feelings of simply “surviving” to a place where they can truly thrive. Organizations were pushed to rethink what’s required for the future of work and how they can best support their people — whether they’re remote, in a physical office setting or utilizing a hybrid workforce model

At the organizational level, leaders should consider adoption of best practices that support resilience, with regular reinforcement from the top down to establish new norms. Also, consider wellness beyond the physical, in ways that foster connection and belonging among employees. For example, providing opportunities for employees to nurture a broad network of relationships both inside and outside the office can prove valuable. This might include sponsoring community outreach programs, offering internal networking or resource groups, or developing coaching and mentoring programs – all fantastic ways to help connect everyday work to someone’s “why” and give them a greater sense of purpose. 

Ask questions to understand employee values

Connecting employee values to the goals of the organization might feel like a big undertaking. But research from the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) suggests it’s a critical strategy for attracting and retaining employees – especially emerging leaders. Data collected from more than 10,000 young professionals shows that those who found purpose in their work were twice as likely to feel empowered in their leadership roles, a key predictor of engagement and effectiveness in the workplace. 

So how can supervisors in your organization initiate dialogue to discover what employees truly value? It starts with asking powerful questions, one of the four core behaviors researchers at CCL have identified as essential to better conversations and coaching. 

The goal isn’t to ask more questions that garner more facts. Instead, the focus should be to ask impactful questions that uncover new insights and tap into feelings and values. 

Powerful questions are open-ended and often start with “what” or “how.” Supervisors can ask the following questions to better understand what their employees value:

  • What drives you to fulfill our mission during the difficult and disruptive times we’re living in?
  • What’s something you’re passionate about, that you’re not currently engaging in through your work at our company? Is there a way we can incorporate it into your work life? (Spearheading volunteer efforts, heading up an employee resource group, etc.)
  • What is the No. 1 value for you at work, and why? As your leader, what can I do to support this value at work?
  • What is getting in the way of you being your best?
  • What do you think we can do, as an organization, to help meet our customers’ needs?

Just as it’s essential for leaders to ask powerful questions, it’s also important for leaders to listen to understand. By listening without judgement and creating a space of psychological safety, supervisors can better identify what their employees value and intentionally create opportunities to connect that purpose to their work. 

Remember that just as values are unique to each individual, so are solutions. If supervisors take the time to ask probing questions and listen to the responses, they’ll start to see employees flourish — the opposite of languishing. Your organization’s culture will thrive, too, and you’ll be better positioned to retain and attract top talent in the months and years ahead.