Finding and Fostering Meaning at Work
Why Do We Work?
It is a simple question, yet filled with complex implications. Different people work for profoundly different reasons. For some, working is a means to an end, providing financial resources to enable what they love outside of work. For others, it gives them an opportunity to live their ‘why’ every day. Some work to make a difference, others work for a sense of accomplishment, others for a financial windfall that builds wealth and a legacy, while still others work as little as possible—to live a life they love outside of work.
Regardless of why we work, everyone wants more from the experience than just a paycheck.
More Than Money.
As society evolves, so do the needs and wants of employees and employers. The moralistic philosophy that people worked purely for economic reasons was a concept that flourished in previous centuries. The ideas that managers organize resources purely to make a profit, or that employees work solely for a paycheck are also outdated.
Douglas McGregor, a management professor at MIT, studied and wrote about the “human side of enterprise” in the 1960s. He revealed that many workers’ motivations were tied to intrinsic factors like autonomy, diversity of work, and control. It challenged the traditional ideas that workers, in general, aren’t ambitious, are unwilling to take responsibility, and don’t really want to work.
Today, employees want reasonable pay and careers that fulfill personal goals, but they also want more meaning. They want to understand how their role has an impact, and how their work contributes to society, and the overall health and success of the organization. They want to learn and grow in their jobs. The most engaged and satisfied workers feel like their work has meaning. They also feel a sense of camaraderie with their colleagues, like they are part of a team. In fact, research shows that 9 out of 10 people said they would be willing to sacrifice pay for more meaning. (Harvard Business Review,November 6, 2018). The same study found that employees that find meaning at work
…spend one additional hour per week working, and take two fewer days of paid leave per year…. More importantly, though, employees who find work meaningful experience significantly greater job satisfaction, which is known to correlate with increased productivity.
Meaning at work is a key component of productivity. Companies and employees that craft a meaningful story benefit socially and financially – creating productive cultures that have a positive impact on employee interactions and the corporate bottom line.
Simply saying that we want to incorporate meaning at work doesn’t cut it. Finding the right words to convey our passion and purpose, so that we can lead others to more meaningful work is nuanced and takes time to develop. When we have difficulty articulating messages of meaning at work, the employees will as well. I experienced this first-hand when I ran a company, traveling every week, and making sacrifices that were detrimental to my family and myself.
When I tried to identify why I was doing what I was doing – to find the meaning and purpose behind my efforts, I struggled to articulate it. I was able to convey that I wanted to protect the livelihood of my employees and the organization, but that was all. This realization was the sign I needed to modify my plan. Instead of feeling burned out, unfulfilled, and pulled in too many directions, I pivoted to developing a strategy to protect my employees by selling the company to a competitor. This provided meaning.
Finding Meaning and Putting It Into Action.
Traditionally, leaders have tried to define meaning by spending countless hours crafting mission and value statements, then disseminating them to personnel. This approach rarely, if ever, works. Mission statements only hold value when the organization lives them. Otherwise, they are just words pasted on a website. Corporate policy generated from employee surveys is a reactive, inorganic attempt at a solution. No mission statement or job satisfaction survey can help craft a message of meaning that embeds itself in organizational DNA to impact real progress.
To magnify meaning in the workplace, individuals and organizations must help each other identify how each contributes to the overall success of the organization, and to the customer, client, and colleague experience. The message of meaning must be communicated, frequently and passionately, in actions and conversations.
Crafting a Meaningful Story.
Research shows that crafting a narrative that makes work feel more meaningful can make a significant difference. It shows that there is a strong correlation between what people expect and how they feel about results. For example, Amy Wrzesniewski and Jane Dutton coined the term “job crafting” while studying employees in various organizations that pushed the limits of predefined job roles. They learned that when staff modified their work in minor ways to craft more meaning, they had higher levels of job satisfaction.
Janitorial Staff Creates Meaning and Increases Job Satisfaction
During their job crafting research, Wrzesniewski and Dutton found distinct differences between several hospitals’ cleaning crews’ sense of meaning. The janitorial staff with the highest levels of satisfaction cognitively crafted a message that they were part of the health care team. This group did little things outside their traditional job descriptions. Beyond simply cleaning rooms, they were observant and cared about the occupants of those rooms. They got water for patients; they noticed who hadn’t had a visitor recently and came back to do multiple cleanings even though the room did not need it; they moved furniture and art around to improve the environment.
These actions allowed them to connect with patients and internalize a message of impact, as members of a team that supported the overall well-being of the patients. This mental and emotional curiosity at work created more purpose for the cleaning staff–which had a direct correlation with their job satisfaction, and a positive impact on the patient experience.
Maintaining the Status Quo is No Longer Tenable
Wrzesniewski and Dutton found that the janitorial staff that didn’t see their work as contributing to the overall health of the patients, or the stability of the organization, didn’t find the same level of meaning and purpose in their work. Even though they did the same job, they were less committed and felt less job satisfaction. Same work—different experiences.
Leaders shouldn’t fall prey to the status quo. The written rules and regulations of job descriptions should never limit the ability to craft meaning. Companies should not expect people to fulfill their need for meaning and purpose entirely outside of work. Employees should always feel like they are part of a team that makes a difference.
Defining Meaningful Impact
Individuals trying to find meaning must think about how work contributes to their overall sense of purpose in life. For some, work is the purpose – having an impact on a larger scale. For others, work provides resources for them to pursue purpose outside of or in addition to work. The goal is to identify key motivators and then craft the story.
Organizations that embrace creating meaning and purpose in their work environments will benefit with a more satisfied staff. Work is an important part of creating a life people love.
Bring Meaning to Work – Getting Started
Finding meaning and purpose to build a work life that supports our personal lives is an essential component of job satisfaction and productivity. The key to identifying purpose in the workplace is to define what it means to you. No one else can do it for you. So grab a pen and paper and let’s get started.
- Take time to reflect on what motivates you to get up in the morning.
- Think about what influences your decision to hit or to not hit snooze on your morning alarm.
- Think about why you work.
- Be open – Don’t limit your responses.
- This list is for you and you alone. If you write thinking about others reading it, you are more likely to modify your responses into what you perceive as socially desirable for your current situation.
- Stay attuned to your gut feelings.
- Gut checks are the visceral responses that we have to information and events based on accumulated knowledge and experiences. They can be very telling, and should not be ignored.
- Think about how It would feel to start saying ‘No’ to opportunities that don’t excite you, or that don’t feel like a good fit
- Write about the feelings you experience as you start to imagine saying ‘No’ and write about the specific opportunities you are saying ‘No’ to.
- Think about the opportunities you want to start saying ‘Yes’ to – the opportunities that stir something in your soul.
- Write about the positive feelings you experience and the specific opportunities you want to say ‘Yes’ to.
This was the process that led to the path I chose – to sell the company I was running to pursue meaning for me, while also protecting the people I cared about. Following these steps allowed me to see patterns and themes embedded in my thoughts and feelings. I discovered that the key to success was defining it myself and staying true to who I am and what I want to accomplish. The culmination of this work, and twenty-five years of synthesizing the study of social dynamics with business experiences, led to the creation of Shyft Strategies and the Shyft5 TM paradigm. I rediscovered meaning at work, and now I get to live my purpose every day professionally. I was finally able to find purpose in my path. How will you find yours?
Kristin Heck Sajadi, Social Awareness Entrepreneur
Founder and CEO, SHYFT STRATEGIES, LLC
If your dreams do not scare you, they are not big enough.