Joly-Hubert_SocialCapital "Even though most work has shifted away from backbreaking or mind-numbing labor toward less physically demanding, more agile and creative work, the view of work as a necessary evil remains common," says Hubert Joly. Photo: Joly Hubert

The “Great Resignation” highlights how more and more employees are asking themselves: “Why should I work here? Why should I invest so much of my life in this job and at this company?” And the sad news is that, for many, the answer is not pretty. They perceive their job as a painful chore or, as Mark Twain once said, a necessary evil to be avoided--a perspective that has deep historical roots going all the way back to Greek antiquity and Genesis.

I know the feeling. When I was a teenager, I found a summer job in a grocery store. All day long, I stuck price tags on vegetable cans for minimum wage. I felt every minute of every hour stretch to a standstill. There was no contact with customers, and I hardly ever saw any manager, let alone talk to one. The work felt meaningless. Then I got lucky: I got hit by a forklift truck. A bruised tailbone got me paid sick leave until the end of the summer. I was very happy! My sole purpose had been to earn what I needed to buy a new bike, and I had succeeded by staying at home doing nothing.

Even though most work has shifted away from backbreaking or mind-numbing labor toward less physically demanding, more agile and creative work , the view of work as a necessary evil remains common. But imagine what would become possible if, instead of less than 20%, more than 80% of people gave their very best at work. Multiple studies have confirmed that more engaged, happier employees directly reflect on the bottom line and on the stock price and are far less likely to quit their jobs or to get injured. (And see this also.) 

So, to confront the Great Resignation, companies and leaders should perhaps squarely focus on why we work, and not just on the issue of where we work related to their back-to-the-office strategy.

When I was CEO of Best Buy, I experienced firsthand the kind of magic fired up employees can produce--and customers did, too. How did we pull this off? What we did was turn a large number of disengaged people into engaged employees, inspired to care for their customers. This was a critical factor in the success of the company’s improbable turnaround.

“Work is love made visible,” eloquently said poet Gibran Khalil Gibran. Most religions, in fact, from Christianity to Hinduism and Islam, consider work as a means to serve others and God. Jewish psychiatrist Viktor Frankl concluded from his experience in Nazi concentration camps that finding meaning in one’s life is the path to fulfillment and happiness, and work can be part of this human quest for meaning. Multiple surveys have confirmed that people across roles and generations rank finding meaning and purpose in one’s work as a top consideration.

Can all work be meaningful? I believe so. When I remember my boring summer job, I contrast it with Wegmans, the chain of grocery stores famous for its service and engaged employees. I also love the story of two masons during the Middle Ages who were asked about their work. “Don’t you see? I’m cutting stones,” said the first one. But the second mason took a different view: “I’m building a cathedral.” Like the first mason, today’s zookeepers, for example, could consider their work cleaning out cages and feeding animals as dull and dirty, or somehow beneath them given that four out of five of them have a college degree. Instead, few ever quit, because most view their work as a meaningful personal calling to care for animals. No matter our role, we get to choose our purpose, and we get to consider how our work is connected to it.

This positive perspective on work has several implications for business leaders--from team managers to top executives. First, you as a leader must be clear about your own personal purpose. Invest time and focus figuring out why you work. My own self-reflection years ago led me to conclude that what drives me is making a positive difference for people around me and using the platform I have to make a positive difference in the world; this is why I am now teaching at Harvard Business School, why I coach and mentor senior executives, and why I wrote "The Heart of Business."

Second, it is just as critical for leaders to encourage everyone in the company to do the same introspection and to share its results with those around them. Best Buy employees, for example, are regularly encouraged to reflect on what drives them. Company get-togethers were also full of stories of personal purpose.

Third, a critical element of leadership is to help individuals at all levels of the company not only reflect on what drives them, but also connect this to the company’s collective purpose. Linking personal and collective purpose gives everyone the energy that, combined with skills, fuels superior performance by making each and every employee feel personally invested in the company’s purpose. Besides encouraging others to reflect on their personal purpose, it is therefore essential for business leaders to understand what motivates individuals around them, too.

Finding meaning in our work changes how much we engage in it and lays the ground for a vital and urgent refoundation of business around people and purpose. Does it make work always easy and always fun? No. Everyone has bad days, and no job is perfect. Also, purpose is not the only thing needed for people to feel fired up at work. But being able to connect what we do every day with a bigger sense of why we do it helps infuse us with energy, drive and direction. And this is a good start--whether you are a mason or a CEO.

(Hubert Joly is a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School, former CEO of Best Buy, and author of "The Heart of Business," which is available in English and French.)