Not Just a ‘Cog in the Machine’

Employees increasingly want to be valued for who they are, not just for the work they do, argues best-selling author Dan Goleman.

Daniel Goleman is author of the international best-seller Emotional Intelligence and of the forthcoming Optimal: How to Sustain Personal and Organizational Excellence Every Day. He is a regular contributor to Korn Ferry. 

According to recent research, employees aren’t just looking for a sense of purpose at work, they are depending on it. A whopping 70% say their work defines their sense of purpose.

This signifies a major shift in the mandate of business. Whereas purpose was once relegated to people’s personal lives—their families, hobbies, and religious communities—there is now a growing expectation that our jobs are the place to actualize our values and connect with a sense of meaning.

This new way of seeing work is influenced by a myriad of things. We could talk about the declining role of religion in the Western world, the burgeoning awareness of global warming, the COVID-19 pandemic, or even the way technology has spawned a culture of isolation alongside unlimited access to global stories of suffering.

But in the context of work, it’s important to look at another conversation—the one around employees’ growing need to be seen as whole people in the workplace. According to one study, 82% of employees say it’s important to be seen by their organization as a person, not just a worker, and only 45% believe their company actually sees them this way.

Succinctly put, the “cog in the machine” culture spawned by the industrial revolution is fading. Modern workers want to be acknowledged for their full range of talents, identities, and passions—not just for what they produce, but for who they are. Just about every workplace trend over the past four years—from the Great Resignation to quiet quitting—can be linked to this request: “Value me for all I bring, and acknowledge me for all that I am.”

When it comes to employee engagement, purpose goes almost hand in hand with being seen as a whole person. One study found that top employers (as measured by their level of employee satisfaction and their appeal to emerging talent) tend to have lower carbon emissions and more diversity, and make a greater effort to understand employee feelings. In other words, they aren’t just showing up for the environment; they are showing up for the very people they employ.

One model that feels especially relevant to the conversation is Dr. Carol Ryff’s multidimensional model of well-being. A psychologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Ryff was among the first to disentangle well-being from happiness and look at what makes for a well-lived life.

  • Self-Acceptance: The importance of understanding our strengths, weaknesses, and personal vision with a positive mindset so we can refrain from judging ourselves and welcome ourselves as we are.
  • Positive Relations with Others: Growing our capacity to understand and accept others and their perspectives. When we extend that acceptance, with empathy and caring, we can achieve the rich personal connections we long for.
  • Autonomy: Resisting social pressures and acting in accordance with our personal values—the ultimate expression of being whole and embracing our uniqueness as people.
  • Environmental Mastery: Allowing our values to determine how we engage with the world, including understanding and utilizing opportunities—and seeking situations—that fit with our own beliefs and principles.
  • Purpose in Life: Going the next step and intentionally directing our vision to pursue more meaningful goals that enable us to look forward to our future.
  • Personal Growth: Seeking new challenges and remaining open to new experiences so we can cultivate a growth mindset and a view of ourselves and the world as having the capacity to develop and improve.

Within this model, we see the foundations of everything employees are asking for, from purpose to being taken for all of who they are. As more and more workers seek jobs that prioritize mutual value, the “cog in the machine” culture will dissipate even further. Of course, this doesn’t mean that money doesn’t matter—it only means that money isn’t always enough. The modern employee wants meaning, equity, and a sense of agency. They want organizations that care about what they value and make room for how they feel about the work. 

Co-written by Elizabeth Solomon


Click here to learn more about Daniel Goleman's Building Blocks of Emotional Intelligence.