This isn't about me, but if I didn't do my job, would it matter?
This responsibility, is it needed? Does it have any impact at all on my peers or our customers?
People can ask many questions pertaining to any nature of existential crisis when it comes to the various ways we believe we contribute at work. Previously, I've blogged on purpose and mattering. This might seem the same, but there's an important difference.
The question is about the actual work being done, no matter if the employee likes it, is energized by it, or thinks it should be subject to various laws of maltreatment. That question is, "is this work significant to the goals of the organization?"
Let's take a very short trip down a road of stereotypes. There is no shortage of ways to make any job seem like it's second only to president when it comes to "if I don't show up, then what." The example people like to choose is one of labor and necessity: trash removal. There is no collective workspace, facility, campus, or entertainment venue that can do without trash removal. It takes a strike of a few days to make a point, even if people without callouses on their hands don't understand the point for several days after that.
Think about how much trash builds up. Even in your home, how often do you take out the trash. At the end of a week, if you take a trash receptacle to the curb, is it full? What if no one picked it up? After you call, still no one picks it up. Then day 2, day 3, what are you doing with your trash?
Now imagine being the manager of a food court in a mall, any restaurant, or an apartment super. What happens now?
While not glamorous, underpaid, and in my opinion, underappreciated, trash removal is significant. That doesn't mean it might not be repetitive, but the work is necessary. The trash is removed from its location so life in that space can continue without interruption. That's significant. No matter what, if a person does not pick up that trash, things will get quite stinky, fast.
If you're a person who cannot envision themselves picking up trash, cleaning windows, entering data, essentially anything seemingly repetitive, this isn't about any type of work being beneath someone or being too complex for others. This is about where people get their energy. Some folks who work labor are great at it and really don't like the work or even see the point. The same can be true for people who have white collar jobs.
The importance enters the discussion when the individual sees the series of tasks before them and understands how each one is significant. That is, without doing that task, it would negatively affect others. What people see as significant won't be the same from person to person, but that feeling must exist in each person to avoid burnout.
When people spend time doing "stuff" that they don't see as significant, burnout is a possibility. This is not dissimilar to the blog on Mattering or Purpose. Task significance helps relate to mattering and purpose. If too many tasks are seen as insignificant, it can be easy to see how the job overall doesn't matter, or the employee has no purpose.
Using the cover image from this article, not every person will be adept at using pliers, screwdrivers, paperclips, sticky notes, or erasers. But in the right hands, each one can be very meaningful. Every person doesn't have to understand, comprehend, or believe the significance of a task at hand. The person doing it, but believe that it matters.
Task significance can spin into questions about succession and longevity. It is true that there are a lot more people working entry-level jobs than people who supervise them. The implication, and business model of a particular online retailer, is that entry-level people are expendable. If that's true, it must mean that their tasks are not significant because almost anyone can do them.
A person can know that their job is significant and their good work impacts others in good ways. At the same time, they might have no patience for their abusive supervisor; or the hours; or the inflexible schedule, so they move on. The person who delivers food through the drive-through window can see their role as very significant as it's a customer interaction even if, when they graduate high school, a new 10th grader will take their place. Appreciating task significance does not equal irreplaceable.
Leaders can help their teams understand their roles and how their tasks are significant. This may not be necessary as a line-item review of a job description, but as questions come up or dissatisfaction is even so much as implied.
Leaders - do NOT make up some nonsense that you don't even believe to try to make your people think their work is 'super important' to the organization. People have different levels of BS-meters, but even the least calibrated sensor will pick up on that garbage. The best you can do is to help the employee appreciate how that task is significant. If they can't and YOU can't there are two courses of action. Course 1 - evaluate whether that task is actually needed. Course 2 - admit that the task is important, but the employee might not see it that way and discuss that without trying to convince them that, essentially, they're wrong about how they view the significance of the task.
Every task our organization employs someone to complete should be significant. If not, maybe it's a mismatch with the employee and the task. Or, it just doesn't need doing.
Either way, allowing an employee to continually engage in tasks they do not see as significant will erode their commitment, engagement, and could lead to burnout.