Soul At Work

April 4, 2017

What does it mean if we say an organization has soul at work?

It has been at least 25 years since I read the story … yet still resonates these many years later. It goes like this:

Why is Shirley, a housekeeper in a 250-bed community hospital, still excited about her work after 15 years? Shirley has seen some changes. She’s been moved from Two West to Three East and actually cleans more rooms today than she did five years ago. The dirt has not changed nor have the unexpected spills of the patients or the arrogance of some physicians. So what motivates Shirley? Is she just cleaning floors, or is she part of a team of people that help sick people get well? Is she ever recognized for what she does? Does she have the best tools to accomplish her task?

The story is on page 46 of the book Soul of the Firm by C. William Pollard, former Chairman of the Board for ServiceMaster Corporation. The story intrigued me because I like to explore and learn about the conditions of great workplaces. I wrote about it last week … about how caring leadership is evident in companies listed this year’s Fortune 100 Best Places to Work. For this week my focus is on the work itself. As in how interesting is the “work” itself? And, like Shirley’s job of cleaning porcelain and terrazzo … where is the “soul” in her work?

Today the most prominent assessment of employee satisfaction is the Gallup company’s engagement surveys. Typically, there are annual press analyses about the state of workplace esprit de corps based on Gallup macro findings. For example, just last year, Gallup’s engagement statistics were quoted by Kevin Kruse in Forbes. He said:

“The percentage of US workers in 2015 who Gallup considered engaged in their jobs averaged 32% … while another 17.2% were actively disengaged. The 2015 averages are largely on par with the 2014 averages and reflect little improvement in employee engagement over the past year.”

So where does “soul” fit in all this? Well … it’s the maverick element in a sea of “little improvement”. I suggest soul exists in organizations where work is given meaning by leadership. And I mean meaning beyond the job description. Meaning comes from the purpose work serves combined with the degree of individual ownership and effectiveness demonstrated.

The key is that none of that exists without leadership validation. That leadership “hug”, in turn, yields a legion of “Shirleys” and “Sams”.