Embrace the Suck: How to Make Mundane Tasks More Meaningful

February 26, 2018 Alex Shootman

By Alex Shootman

Imagine ranking every task of your working week on a scale from “I do this to pay the bills” to “I do this to make a difference.”

Each end of the scale represents how motivated you feel: from trudging through tedious-but-necessary tasks to challenging work that pushes you to perform at your peak.

See "4 Ways Managers Can Restore Team Members’ Motivation" for more on inspiring your team.

We all want the balance of our working week to tilt towards “I do this to make a difference.” And when it does, our sense of well-being rises along with our productivity.

But even dream jobs have their share of mundane work.

Think of the athletes who sweat it out in the gym or training field for hours each day, or the movie stars memorizing their lines and floor marks, or even the Apollo astronauts who went back to school to brush up their calculus, algebra, and geology before reaching the moon.  Great athletes, actors, and astronauts find a way to give their best to the banal.

In the world of business, these tedious-but-necessary tasks most often take the form of paperwork and admin.

How about those regular reports that you’re required to produce (but you suspect aren’t really being read)? Or the project plans you have to carefully map out, organizing schedules and resources and budgets? Or the time you spend filling out the granular details of a project brief, in hopes that your efforts to clarify the vision up front will pay off in the end?

How can leaders make unglamorous tasks like these matter—or at least suck a little less?

The answer lies in one of the unsung attributes of any motivated organization: transparency.  Companies like the online shoe and clothing retailer Zappos and the social platform Buffer have made “default to transparency” a core value of their organization.

To make unglamorous work matter, the challenge is to be transparent about what’s being done, by whom, and why. This needs to happen in five key areas of the business.

1. Mission Transparency

If you want work to matter, it matters for whom you are working. The mission of the organization must be transparent: clear, consistent, and well understood inside the business and outside too.

A company mission is not a marketing strapline. The mission must be manifest in the culture of the organization and embodied in its leadership. And, as the author and consultant Simon Sinek has explained, the best missions start with clarity about why you’re doing what you’re doing, not just what you’re doing or how.

“If you hire people just because they can do a job, they’ll work for your money. But if you hire people who believe what you believe, they’ll work for you with blood and sweat and tears,” Sinek explained in his 2010 TED talk How Great Leaders Inspire Action and his theory of the Golden Circle of “Why, How, What” communication.

2. Objective Transparency

If colleagues don’t know what they’re trying to achieve, and why it’s important, how will they know if they’re succeeding? And if they can’t define what success looks like, motivation will be elusive.

The way to avoid colleagues falling into a spiral of self-questioning doubt about whether they’re doing the right thing is clarity of purpose. So, the objectives of individual tasks, projects, and ongoing work need to be transparent and clear to everyone involved.

3. Team Transparency

Pride matters more than money, Jon Katzenbach wrote in 2003. Sure, what you earn can be motivating. But Katzenbach argues this produces “self-serving behavior and skin-deep organizational commitment rather than institution-building behavior.”

Katzenbach’s book is full of stories of how a sense of pride in whom you work for—and whom you work with—is a foundation of high performance.  

But a pre-condition for feeling a sense of collective pride in what you’re achieving as part of a team is knowing where you fit and who is doing what.

Team activity needs to be transparent. Colleagues have no need to wonder if everyone is working as hard as them, or fielding the same burden of tedious-but-necessary tasks, if they can see what everyone is doing, and their own work is equally open to scrutiny.

4. Task Transparency

The same rule applies to tasks as objectives. If folks don’t see the point of what they’re doing and how it fits a wider pattern of tasks, they’ll always struggle to feel motivated. Clarity of project brief, timelines, deadlines, quality standards, and performance indicators all work together to make tasks transparent.

This might sound simple, but for the last four years running, our research has shown that too much of the working week is soaked up with “shadow work”—tasks that seem to bear no relation to what you were hired to do. Task transparency means clarity of expectations and requirements for each activity.

5. Customer Transparency

There’s a layer missing from Sinek’s “Why, How, What” Golden Circle, and that is the“Who.” Who does the work you’re doing matter to? Ultimately, the quality of the work you do matters to three constituent groups: the organization’s financial stakeholders, your colleagues, and customers.

Mission, objective, team, and task transparency combine to create accountability as well as a sense of purposeful action in the workplace.

But work is given greater meaning when it is understood in the context of the final beneficiaries—how customers feel about the final product or service, whether they’re delighted or disappointed. Accountable transparency means understanding how your work contributes to customer satisfaction, feedback, and retention.

Embrace the Suck

There’s a final essential ingredient in this recipe: honest communication. All this transparency helps us see where we fit and where our tasks fit with a broader pattern of work. The most tedious task becomes more meaningful, but it still may really suck to wade through it.  

There is a slang term from the military, “Embrace The Suck,” which means to consciously accept or appreciate something that is extremely unpleasant but unavoidable. As a leader, be honest. Yes, the task is dull, but it needs to be done for all the reasons colleagues can now see.

The job of the leader isn’t to misrepresent or over-sell. You’ll win more respect by being open and realistic while painting the broader picture of what’s at stake. Remember that people have an uncanny knack of sniffing out the truth of the matter. Acknowledge and embrace the task for what it is!

What should be clear is that each form of transparency is linked. Align a transparent mission, objectives, team, and tasks to their customer context, and work becomes more meaningful from top-level philosophy to the smallest practical action. Unglamorous work remains unglamorous, but it will have greater purpose.

The Right Tool for the Job

Creating a culture of transparency that helps to make work meaningful requires work tools geared for clarity and accountability. Tasks must be defined, progress must be tracked, team activity must be accessible, the end goal must be clear, and customer feedback must be open to scrutiny.

Rather than spreading this information across different documents, formats, and platforms, gather it all in one place—an operational system of record, for example—and not only will those tedious-but-necessary tasks suck less, your team will also find greater meaning, motivation, and productivity in their daily work.

Download our free ebook "Make Your Work Matter: 7 Thought Leaders on Why Work Isn't Working for You and How You Can Change It" for more tips on making work meaningful.

About the Author

Alex Shootman

As President and CEO of Workfront, Alex drives the overall strategy, vision, and execution for the company, ensuring that Workfront is a dedicated partner in helping its customers transform the work experience. Shootman brings more than 25 years of experience in all areas of revenue and profit generation for technology organizations, with significant experience leading SaaS-based companies. In his free time Alex can usually be found trying to convince his legs that they really don’t hurt on a road bike or running trail, admiring the view from a 14er in Colorado, or down on a reef in his home state of Hawaii. That is if his four kids leave him any free time.

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