Nan Russell: Beyond your tasks
Column by Nan Russell
Ever hear the story of the two masons working side by side at a building site? They’re doing the same work under pretty much the same conditions. One day a stranger comes along, approaches one of the men and asks, “What are you doing?”
“I don’t know and I don’t care,” replies the man, his voice brimming with irritation. All I do is slap this crummy mortar on these crummy bricks and pile them up in a crummy line. That’s what I’m doing.”
The stranger returns to the building site the next day. This time he approaches the second man, asking him the same question. “Tell me,” he said, “what are you doing?” Smiling at the stranger, the man proudly replies, “Why, I’m helping to build the new cathedral.”
In 20 years in management I met too many people like that first mason. People doing what they were told to do, without a greater context or purpose. People focused on what they were doing, not why they were doing it. People who clearly didn’t like their job, and weren’t winning at working.
You see, when you define the purpose for your work, you create a vision behind the tasks, and that vision changes results. Think about it. What are you helping to build in your workplace? Why does your work matter?
Before you say it doesn’t, think again. Your role is important or you wouldn’t be paid to do it. Of course, it’s unlikely you’ll find the purpose outlined in your job description. Defining your purpose is not about the tasks you do; it’s about the reason for the tasks.
So if you’re an employment specialist in Human Resources, your purpose is not to hire people. That’s a task. The reason behind the task might be to increase your company’s competitive edge with exceptional people. If you’re a web designer, your job is not to build websites. That’s a task. Your purpose is in the why of it. Maybe it’s to build the company brand or make life easier for your customers. See beyond your title.
In one of my jobs, my purpose was to help the organization develop a winning culture; in another it was to help build trust in the corporate brand so new customers would give us a try. My job title or description would never have told you about either.
But here’s a secret. People who are winning at working don’t wait for their boss to define their work’s purpose. They figure it out. They define it. They create a vision for themselves.
People who are winning at working aren’t satisfied doing tasks like the first mason. They’re like the second. They want to understand and contribute to the whole; to know that what they do at work matters. Want to be winning at working? Define the work’s purpose, and get beyond your tasks.