What Chipping Paint Taught Me About Finding Meaning at Work

An illustration on how powerful it is for people to have a clear understanding of their role and why it matters in the grand scheme of things.

By Bill Howlett | Jul 28, 2017 | BLOG POST
Chipped Paint

How many of you have a love-hate relationship with your current goal-setting process?

In an ideal world, it should be simple. The drumbeat usually goes something like this: an employee’s goals should be tied to departmental goals, which are also tied to something else that’s much bigger. If it was that easy, there would be a lot more love going around for our dear friend, the goal-setting process.

But we all know it’s not that easy. And we know the pain points that come with a lack of clarity around goals. The biggest one – disengaged employees.

In 2016, Gallup published its State of Local and State Government Workers’ Engagement in the US report. More than 400,000 full-time US workers, including nearly 61,000 state and local government workers, were surveyed to determine engagement levels across the country. The message to government leaders was sobering: 71 percent of public sector employees are not engaged in their jobs.

A lack of clarity around strategy and delayed feedback processes have long been cited as common challenges that impact employee productivity and engagement. This might sound simplified, but in the 30  years I’ve worked in training and organizational development, and even during my time in the US Navy, I’ve learned that organizations and individuals need effective goal-setting processes and regular feedback and communication to be successful.

Let me share with you a personal example from my time in the navy to illustrate how powerful it is for people to have a clear understanding of their role and why it matters in the grand scheme of things.

Chipping the Paint Just for the Sake of It

Back when I was a sailor, my shipmates and I were chipping paint on the USS William R. Rush. I was young and enthusiastic, and while everyone else was breaking tools and doing anything they could to get out of doing their work, I plugged away and was happy to do it.

My Chief Petty Officer came over and asked me why I was so dedicated to chipping the paint. I said, “Because you asked me to, Chief,” and that was the truth. I was chipping the paint because it was something I was told to do. 

He then took me to the galley for a cup of coffee and asked, “How do you think the navy supports the US economy?”

I had no clue.

He went on to explain to me how my task of chipping the paint was part of the overall maintenance that kept the ship from deteriorating and maintained our readiness, which in turn maintained the fleet's readiness, allowing us to keep the sea lanes open and safe for commerce to support the US economy.

At that point, the light bulb went on: I wasn’t just chipping paint. I was helping make the US dollar stronger. When my Chief Petty Officer helped connect those dots, I became even more committed to my tasks. I remember chipping paint harder and better than I did before.

In that situation, the biggest problem was that nobody really understood why we were chipping paint or how it was linked to our responsibilities as sailors or to the goals of the navy. Had my fellow paint chippers realized the connection, I’m sure fewer tools would have been broken.

In the city of Henderson, where I work now, we have various tools and processes in place to help employees feel connected and fulfilled in their work so they can get the most out of the time they spend at work. Here are three lessons about goal setting and communication I’ve learned over the years that have helped our city workers.

Collaborative Goals Improve Performance

I can’t stress enough the importance of ensuring employees having specific, measureable goals that they can work towards. But it’s important for people to factor in what it is about their job they’re passionate about into the goal-setting process. It could be something related to their performance or their development or even their career. The point is that employees and supervisors set goals together. Getting in the habit of setting goals together puts supervisors and their direct reports on the same page and helps to maintain a continuous line of sight on progress.

I recently read a scientific study on goal setting that found worker performance improved by 12  percent to 15 percent when there were defined goals, compared to when no goals were set. The next time you think everyone is too busy to sit down and discuss project or career goals, think about that statistic and ask yourself, “What would 15 percent mean to you and where you work?”

Set Goals and Emphasize the Relevance

Whether you are working with a team member on setting SMART goals or TRAMS goals, it’s important that the ‘R’ is emphasized – goals need to be relevant to the individual, to the team, and to what the department wants to achieve.

When people have a clear sense of what they are expected to do and why, it makes it easier for people to stay focused and productive on what matters, instead of being occupied with “busy work.” And relevance can motivate and engage people in their work — just like when I was chipping away at that paint. Once I knew the ripple effect, I was even more diligent.

Communicate and Pivot when Needed

We have to remember that creating goals is a not a set-and-forget exercise. There is no one-size solution for how much or how little you need to provide feedback or check-in on how employees are progressing against their set goals, but it should meet the needs of employees and flow with the pace of your organization.

With that said, research from Bersin by Deloitte found organizations that have employees review and revise goals at least quarterly are 45 percent more likely to have above average financial performance. The reason? Employees and managers work together to ensure everyone is working toward something relevant, realistic, and attainable.

If there is a major change of direction in a department or a new focus, make employees aware with timely communication and make time to revisit goals. When we set goals and they become outdated, it can actually demotivate and make people believe the process is pointless. There is nothing wrong with pivoting, as long as everyone moves in the same direction.

Don’t Just Chip the Paint

I’ve carried the lesson I learned about chipping the paint throughout my career. In fact, something happened recently in the city that reminded me, once again, just how important it is for people to understand that what they do matters.

This spring we rolled out our flow down goals. I walked into the boardroom to set up for the meeting to talk about our goals and there was a custodian there who was just finishing up her rounds. We said hello and eventually started talking about the meeting that was about to start. She told me that none of what I was about to present applied to her because her job wasn’t that important. It made me think of my Chief Petty Officer right away.

So I asked, “What would happen if you didn’t help maintain the city’s facilities?”

She replied, “Things would break down, we'd have wear and tear, and the city would have higher costs.” We also talked about what would happen to the city’s reputation if these things happened.  

You see, our jobs are important because our end goal is the same – we want Henderson to be America’s premier community. We both want any experience that a resident, city worker, or other visitor has to be exceptional.

When she realized that her job was in fact important and we were all working towards the same goal, she was very moved because nobody had ever made the connection before.

We often get comfortable with our teams and are able to have a shorthand when we work. We can guess what another person will be doing or we don’t have to go into too much detail on a certain project because our colleague “gets it.”

When it comes to goal setting and management, we can’t risk assuming that employees just know. It’s too important of a task. And people aren’t going to sit around and wait for someone to figure it out. They’ll soon become disengaged and look for other work. The cost of doing nothing is too high. People deserve more from work and they’ll go where their needs are met. It’s that simple.

Make sure your leaders are well versed in setting goals and then communicating the relevance to each person. Then provide them with the resources to support their employees in successfully achieving their goals. The action makes all the difference.

Chip away, my friends.

Author Bio
Bill Howlett joined Henderson in September 2004. As the manager of Training & Organization Performance, he is responsible for aligning city training to business performance, leadership development, leveraging emerging learning technologies and city performance appraisal and compensation processes. He has over 30 years’ experience in training and organizational design. He served as a US Army Officer for 11 years and as a Petty Officer in US Navy for six years.

Howlett holds an MS degree in curriculum and instructional technology from Iowa State University. He also holds a BS degree in education for the State University of New York, College at Old Westbury.


*Image from: Quinn Dombroski, Chipped Paint. Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/quinnanya/5038180578/in/photolist-8FcZyo-7BSaPg-5evxWa-5ezWiQ-b3ZqYX-5iRCDy-38LdE-5S4P6A-8Cv6uj-6MGVGy-8EXHss-945zGk-nnDX3Y-5S


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