Five Questions We All Have At Work
Bill Cottringer

“All good work has magic in it, and addresses the mind in a subtle way.” ~Duane Michals.

There are five questions we all have at work which need reasonable answers to, as guided by effective management. These questions were the main part of an earlier book of mine—“You Can Have Your Cheese And Eat It Too”—that inspired a good friend of mine to purchase several copies of the book for his police department. The friend was Steve Harris, long standing police chief of the Redmond Police Department in Washington State, who unfortunately was tragically killed in a recent automobile accident. This article is dedicated to Chief Harris’s now legacy passion for public and private partnerships in the criminal justice system. These favorite five basic questions of his are discussed below in his beloved memory:

1. Why Am I Here?

This first question is often the most difficult to answer because work is so important to our lives. And, at the roots of living is our search for the purpose of being here, which often takes a lifetime to discover. The other difficulty in answering this question is that it depends upon a tight glove-fit match between what the organization needs and what the employee can offer in regards to knowledge, skills, motivation and character.

Just showing up and getting a paycheck are usually not enough today. Most jobs are part of a meaningful career and the best satisfaction and performance come about when there is close congruence between the organization’s profile of needs, characteristics, culture, abilities and preferences and those of the employee. Profile mismatching is what leads to disruptive turnover. While organizations often have the answer to this question waiting in the wind, employees often have to discover it by trial and error in jobs, careers and organizations.

2. What Am I Supposed To Be Doing?

It is management’s main responsibility to direct employees as to “what” they are supposed to be doing at work. Leaders start this process by sharing their vision and goals as to where the organization is going, along with the core values that are necessary to get there. These things must be communicated consistently, frequently and in a variety of formats to stick like duct tape as they must.

The managers are the cheerleaders answering this question. Of course, giving advice on approaches and methods of how to do this when asked is appropriate, after employees run out of their own answers. And, occasionally, aware leaders will strategically introduce needed course corrections when critical goals aren't being met. If priorities change too often though, employees have a hard time keeping up with their changing answer to this second question.

3. How Do I Know If I Am Doing It Right?

The “how to” of most work comes from another friend of mine, Anil Bhatnagar, in his successful team-building model of the Three C’s:

• Commitment. This sacred covenant is mutually made between the employee with the job, career and organization and returned in kind by the employer (a basic social contract). It is founded on the type of trust that Stephen M.R. Covey writes about in his book “The Speed of Trust.” My own understanding of trust is that it has to be given freely before it can be properly discerned from both good and bad experiences, leaning in the direction of hope and optimism.

• Concern. This critical success factor is the expressed concern the employee and organization have for self and others. Genuine concern is developed through the important elements of emotional intelligence, most especially self-management, awareness, empathy and compassion.

• Competence. The last of the 3 C’s is taking the first two to get results through skilled, creative and disciplined performance. You can’t have competence without commitment and concern, but without competence you can’t get results.

4. What Is In It For Me?

This is a motivational question involving both extrinsic motivators (money, recognition, achievement, power, etc.) and intrinsic motivators (sense of meaningfulness and accomplishment, inner satisfaction, keeping busy, finding purpose, etc.). It is important for managers to keep employees motivated with the right motivators, which may be very different between employees and even different at times within the same employee. The strongest work motivator appears to be an internal sense of making progress at doing a job well and making a valuable contribution.

Trying to answer this question often results in several job, career and organization changes and subsequent serial failures and disappointments However, hindsight vision usually sees the true answer is always there waiting to be discovered, not invented.

5. Where Do I Go To Get Help?

Depending on the level of help needed, sources of relief can be managers, mid-level supervisors, co-workers, books, training classes or even friends. Asking for help usually involves experiencing difficulty solving a problem or conflict at hand. Resolving problems and conflicts are the main challenge in life that can lead to the most gains in learning, growing and improving, which is the only path to success. Help is always around the next corner and usually free for the asking.

It is always a good thing to be very clear as to what the real problem or conflict is, apart from the noisy, annoying surface symptoms. It is also a good idea to at least try to come up with some plausible solutions. Problems without solutions just become additional time-consuming problems on the waiting list which never needs to keep growing.

Good communication to get satisfactory answers to all five of these fundamental questions will guarantee better productivity and job satisfaction in the workplace. These two things in turn guarantee the organization’s success and stakeholder’s contentment. This is a win-win for everyone.

“Good work is the only thing that would make me feel jealous or envious.” ~Philip Seymour Hoffman, deceased actor.

Author's Bio: 

William Cottringer, Ph.D. is Executive Vice-President for Employee Relations for Puget Sound Security, Inc. in Bellevue, WA, Adjunct Professor at Northwest University, member of IACP since 2003, along with his hobbies in being a Sport Psychologist, Business Success Coach, Photographer and Writer living in the peaceful but invigorating mountains and rivers of North Bend. He is author of several business and self-development books, including, “You Can Have Your Cheese & Eat It Too” (Executive Excellence), “The Bow-Wow Secrets” (Wisdom Tree), “Do What Matters Most” and “P” Point Management” (Atlantic Book Publishers), “Reality Repair” (Global Vision Press), Reality Repair Rx (Authorsden), and “If Pictures Could Talk,” coming soon. Bill can be reached for comments or questions at (425) 454-5011 or