How important is meaning in the workplace?

“It is impossible to have a great life unless it is a meaningful life. And it is very difficult to have a meaningful life without meaningful work.”- Jim Collins

According to Peter Morris, author of “The Dysfunctional Workplace,” less than half of all American workers are satisfied with their jobs, in part, because of a lack of meaningful work.

Jessica Amortegui, who works in leadership development for VMware, said: “Increasing a sense of meaningfulness at work is one of the most potent, and underutilized, ways to increase productivity, engagement and performance.”

A study was done by an organization whose purpose it was to solicit donations for university scholarships. As you might imagine, spending all day asking alumni for money is not always the most rewarding type of work, and the return on investment of time was low.

At this point, the company decided to try something different. They located one of the university’s scholarship recipients and brought him in to talk to employees about what his scholarship meant to him. After this, the donation rate increased significantly. The organization brought in several more scholarship recipients to speak, and donations soared. The message was clear: Employees were motivated and more productive when they were able to make a connection between what they were doing and why.

Another example: Employees of Medtronic, a company that manufactures heart valves, makes sure its employees understand the impact of their work. They invite heart valve recipients to an annual party so that employees can see the human face of the work they do. It’s no wonder Medtronic boasts low turnover and high employee satisfaction.

On a more local note, I recently had a delicious lunch at the beautiful DoubleTree by Hilton hotel in downtown Reading. While there, I noticed two servers polishing water glasses and wineglasses, holding them up to the light to look for spots. I’m sure these employees found some meaning in their jobs, and I believe General Manager Craig Poole can take credit for hiring people with a passion for what they do.

One of the things that takes meaning away from jobs is to tell employees exactly how to do the job you’re asking them to do: in other words, micromanaging. When you remove the opportunity for employees to put their own creative stamp on their jobs, you take the fun out of working, along with the job’s meaning.

At Nordstrom’s department store, employees are given one directive: “Use your good judgment in all situations.” That’s it. And this policy allows employees at Nordstrom’s to be creative in meeting customers’ needs, because they feel trusted by their employer. As a result, Nordstrom’s has been named one of the top 50 happiest places to work in America.

Workplace meaning increases when employees can link the purpose of their own lives to their jobs. We all want to make a difference. This is why it’s so important for employees to understand the big picture. Most of us feel a need to connect to something larger than ourselves at work.

When organizations can help their employees find meaning in their work, they become more engaged and take ownership of their jobs. Meaning is about giving, not taking.

Contrary to popular belief, it isn’t all about the money. Studies have shown that some employees would actually forgo a higher salary for more meaningful work. Author Tammy Erickson, who writes about millennial employees and studies their sources of motivation, has gone so far as to declare that for many younger workers, “meaning is the new money.” Employees who find meaning in their work are more likely to stay in their jobs.

Although many companies believe that their mission statements create meaning for employees, they’re actually more likely to cause cynicism and disengagement. The reason for this is that most mission statements miss the mark in terms of what the company does for others. Starbucks stands out as a company with an altruistic mission statement: “to inspire and nurture the human spirit: one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time.” That’s a lot different than just selling coffee.

Even the most menial jobs can be meaningful if the employee understands the impact his or her work has on others. There is an old tale about three bricklayers hard at work. When asked what they were doing, the first bricklayer responded: “I’m putting one brick on top of another.” The second replied: “I’m making $20 an hour.” The third said: “I’m building a cathedral!”

Peter Morris identifies the following as symptoms of a meaning-deficient work environment: calling in sick, workplace apathy, low creativity, high turnover, gossip, clock-watching and no interest in what other departments are doing.

To help your employees find meaning in their work:

 

  • Connect personal goals with organizational goals.
  • Identify and use individual strengths to encourage flow.
  • Make sure employees understand why their jobs exist, and who benefits from their work.
  • Consider factors such as work/life balance, opportunities for growth and learning, autonomy and job flexibility

Employees want to have a reason to be excited about coming to work. Make sure they understand the purpose your organization serves.

Walt Disney’s purpose was to make dreams come true. Now, that’s a mission statement.

 



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