Becoming an Engaged Employee: From ‘Labor’ to ‘Opus’

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Gallup, a leading expert on global workplace analytics and solutions, defines an engaged employee as those who are involved in, enthusiastic about and committed to their work and workplace. Yet, according to their latest State of the American Workplace study (2017), 70% of American workers are not engaged employees. At best, they show up, endure the day, and leave feeling less than inspired. At worst, these folks poison the well and pull others into their morass. Either way there are clearly lots of people quietly “sucking it up,” and who are drawn, like moths to the flame, to this title.

While life isn’t always rainbows and butterflies, work occupies enough time to take a hard look at how we feel about it and why. Work can be tedium and drudgery as in “labor.” But it can also be a masterpiece – an “opus” if given the right materials, inspiration, and patronage. Think DaVinci, Donatello, Bach. Our careers span decades, so understanding how we view work – as labor or as masterpiece – can impact our success, health, and overall happiness.

Work can be tedium and drudgery as in “labor.” But it can also be a masterpiece – an “opus” if given the right materials, inspiration, and patronage.

Sitting in the “labor” column doesn’t mean failure; it simply means having awareness of your situation. The challenge to becoming an engaged employee? Look closer at “the suck” in order to “un-suck” it. Some relatively simple, but critical analysis may help you understand what’s grinding your gears and how you might start changing it to find opus.

The Organization.

We know this: people don’t quit jobs, they quit bosses. In corporate environments, the boss is the employee’s gatekeeper, feedback provider, compensation assessor, opportunity creator, skill/knowledge developer, shield/advocate, etc.

In law firms where “boss” may be less defined or more matrixed, employee “care” shifts to the organization. The firm, through its processes, programs, and culture owns plugging these “people needs.”

If work feels like labor, articulate the missing components. Perhaps specific people can fill the gaps: HR, committees, a particular tenured partner, etc. If, after serious work, the holes can’t be plugged, be brave enough to consider that this organization may just not be “your people.” Then be braver still: go find them.

They do exist.

The Type of Law.

If your organizational foundation is strong, yet Mondays loom like a visit to anyologist, examine your practice area. Many graduate law school with aspirations of practicing in one area but take an internship with a firm that needs help in another. A job offer and a paycheck often trumps the passion. Fast forward several years and people find themselves having built a practice in a line that was never their intention, that is “fine” but not inspiring, that pays the bills but does not pull them out of bed in the morning.

Resolving this situation means disrupting the status quo. It might mean temporarily sacrificing status to become a novice once again.

Resolving this situation means disrupting the status quo. It might mean temporarily sacrificing status to become a novice once again. Perhaps it means reducing a paycheck to increase happiness. Maybe it means volunteering for a not-for-profit in need of the talents you’re craving to exercise.

Tolerating work is not opus producing. Be brave. Even if you are THE expert in your field, if your practice area doesn’t light you up, pursue one that does – even if only on a part-time or voluntary basis.

Being a Lawyer.

What if, after all the time, money, and effort, this “lawyer thing” is just not for you? You do not love codes, tort or legal arguments; clients, research and briefs leave you cold.

Despite everything you might be thinking, not being a lawyer is not the worst thing in the world. And the last several years of your life have not been a waste. Of all professions, your education, experience, and connections have provided you with inordinately transferrable skills. You are well equipped to accept a job you love.

Be brave. Go find it. To start your journey, consider what attracted you to the law to begin with – what were you hoping to achieve by being a lawyer? That goal may still be the same it just may have a different job description toward achievement.

Full credit for the labor vs. opus analogy goes to Brad Hunt – my friend, colleague, and wine guide. Debbie Roos

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