Dave and Wendy Ulrich made a nice coupling on stage Monday at their session, “The Why of Work: How Great Leaders Build Abundant Organizations that Deliver Value to Employees, Customers, Investors and Communities.”
No surprise the joint session at SHRM worked, considering the Ulrichs have been married for many years and share three children and a granddaughter. But it was their joint message and the subject of their new book, The Why of Work, that carried an especially cohesive and cogent argument — that organizations would do well to start looking at themselves as places where people find meaning and purpose. More importantly, that organizations should be looking for ways to cultivate that new realization and approach.
“We’re taking a different cut from human resources,” said Dave Ulrich, professor at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business and a prolific and well-published HR expert. Wendy is a professional psychologist and founder of Sixteen Stones Center for Growth in Alpine, Utah. “We’re basically combining HR and psychology,” he said.
They’re also taking their show on the road, if you will, to refute the notion that fostering the relationship between worker and work, and helping employees find meaning and purpose in their jobs is some warm and fuzzy, soft and cuddly notion. “I hear this criticism in some circles,” said Dave Ulrich. “I tell them they’re just wrong. Still, I can’t convince everyone.”
The Ulrichs’ base their premise on the early works of Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, author of Man’s Search for Meaning, which he wrote while imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp. At the time, Frankl discovered that, even in the harshest and cruelest of settings, some people remained vibrant and vital because of their stories and their strengths, and the strengths they could bring to one another. They found meaning in their identities.
So, too, should “organizational strategies be stories,” said Ulrich. ” Successful leaders should be meaning makers. We want to begin to change the conversation” about what HR’s purpose should be as well.
Calling on another famous thinker from the past, Wendy Ulrich told the story of medical researcher Jonas Salk, best known for his discovery of the polio vaccine. Salk, in one interview, recalled how his mother found lessons to be learned in all his setbacks. She created the learning environment that, in turn, created the famous scientist.
“Do we inculcate a learning environment in our organizations?” she asked. “How do we learn from our setbacks, and help our employees learn from theirs? What are we doing in HR to promote that?”
One clear path to helping people find meaning and happiness in an organization, they said, is to promote the importance of the team and relational strengths. “HR,” said Dave Ulrich, “is the force of the organization that shapes identity.
“One of my greatest fears in HR today,” he said, “is that we’re so worried about talent, we’re forgetting about the organization — its systems and the capacity to work together.” That’s where the meaning and purpose lie, he added — “building on your own strengths to strengthen others.”