Motivation Through Meaning: Retain Employees With Meaningful Work

Finding meaning is one of the great existential questions of life. Some people work their whole lives trying to figure out what their purpose is.

Meaningful work has been continuously recognized as a key employee engagement driver. The forth report in Deloitte’s Talent 2020series, surveyed 560 employees across virtually every major industry and global region. One of the top 3 engagement drivers that they identified: meaningful work. But how do leaders help employees find meaning in their work?

A study led by Professor Catherine Bailey (Bailey, C. and Madden, A. (2016) ‘What makes Work Meaningful – or Meaningless’. MIT Sloan Management Review, Vol 57, no. 4, pp. 53-61) tells us a few things about how employees find meaning in their work. When employees were asked about meaningful moments at work, very few made any mention of effective leadership. But poor leadership was associated with undermining meaningfulness.

Unlike with satisfaction and engagement, which can be managed with company policies and initiatives, meaningfulness is much more individual and personal. The main way that employees find meaning is to reflect on their work.

Researchers were able to discover that meaningfulness goes beyond the workplace and is more about finding a connection to humanity, through their jobs. Organizations can encourage this by creating a culture of ethics, morals, and corporate social responsibility that brings an employee’s personal values and work life together.

A survey from Accenture, asking 2016 college graduates what is important to them when working at an organization found that 92% of them stated social responsibility. Recent graduates want to work for an organization that creates a positive change in the world and adds meaning to their lives.

In the study referenced earlier, Dr. Madden stated:

“Organizations that succeed in this are more likely to attract, retain, and motivate the employees they need, to build sustainably for the future and to create the kind of workplaces where human beings can thrive.”

While helping employees find meaning may not be easy, it is something that employers should try to support. There are five main qualities that companies can look at to see if they have created an environment that is supportive of employees and their quest for meaning.

Qualities of meaningful work

Do employees take pride in their work? Is the work creative and interesting? Are employees praised and recognized for good work? If yes, then the company is building the foundation of meaningful work, but the next set of questions are especially important. 

Do employees feel like their work is important to others?

Employees want to feel like their work benefits others, not just themselves. Researchers call this quality self-transcendent.

Does the work leave employees with mixed feelings at times?

Research has found that most meaningful work is not just full of joy. Sometimes meaning comes from a job that has moments of emotional pain or discomfort. Meaningful moments are not just when employees feel engaged or happy, they can be full of challenges and struggles. The feeling of having to cope when working or the greater good gave meaning to moments that were more than just happy and simple tasks.

Have employees had past moments of meaningfulness?

Meaningfulness is not something that happens continuously. It often occurs in short bursts across the span of an employee’s career.  An employee may only have a few of these types of moments during their work lives, but those moments can leave a lasting impression on how they view their jobs and their lives.

Do employees have the chance to reflect on their work?

Meaningfulness is often not experienced during work. Most meaning comes from reflecting on past work. This time allows employees to make connections between their completed work and their values in life.

Is there a connection between the work and the employee’s personal life?

Meaningful work is often connected to an employee’s personal life, as well as their professional life. An employee might have friends or family members appreciate their work. A project could be inspired or dedicated to a close friend or family member. An experience with a customer could relate to something in the employee’s personal life. Many of those moments, even though they may not be especially happy, can create moments of meaning.

While employers cannot create meaningful work for their employees, they can ask themselves and their employees some of these questions to help employees find the moments of meaningfulness on their own.

While meaningfulness is a personal thing that an organization cannot control, leaders can actively cause meaninglessness.

The causes of meaninglessness

Do the employee’s values match the organization’s values?

The disconnect between what an employer values and what an employee values can lead to a deep sense of meaninglessness.

Are employees feeling appreciated?

Not feeling recognized or rewarded for hard work can make employees feel like what they are doing is meaningless. Why do you think managers don’t recognize employees?

Are job tasks perceived as pointless?

Many employees have a general idea of what they feel their jobs should be and what kinds of tasks they involve. If they feel that too many tasks do not fit into their view of the job, they often view them as pointless.

Are all employees treated fairly?

When employees feel that they are not treated fairly, they often do not find meaning in their work. Unfairness can include bullying, few opportunities for promotions, and treating employees with different standards.

How much control do employees have over their work?

Many employees begin to feel less motivated and less satisfied when managers micromanage them and try to control too many details. Employees begin to lose a sense of control and power when they are not listened to and respected.

How often do employees get to connect with others?

Due to the social brain, employees, like all people, need to connect. Isolation and the sense of lowliness that follows can lead to a strong sense of meaninglessness.

How often are employees at risk of emotional or physical harm?

Many jobs have a certain amount of risk. Most people know the risks when accepting a job assignment. Meaningfulness decreases when there are extreme or needless risk factors.

These are questions that all leaders and managers need to ask themselves. Many of these causes of meaninglessness have solutions that can be put into place without too much effort.

Creating an atmosphere of meaningfulness

Asking the questions listed above requires managers to have discussions with their employees. These discussions are the starting point for how an organization and its employees can come together to create the potential for meaningfulness. Using a top-down approach, leaders can discuss all levels of the organization.

Discuss the meaning of the organization

Employees need to understand the purpose of the organization and the positive impact it makes on the community. They need to be able to understand the goals, future plans, and values that guide the mission of the organization.

Leaders and managers need to have authentic and open conversations with employees. If there is a disconnect between what the organization represents and what it actually does, employees will find very little meaning in their work.

Discuss the meaning of the job

To support meaning making, managers need to be able to help employees see how their jobs fit in with and support the organization’s value and purpose. They need to see their job as helping the organization improve society in some way.

Discuss the meaning of the tasks

Most jobs come with tasks that seem tedious and uninteresting. Many people find paperwork and other repetitive tasks as taking time from their real purpose. It is the job of the manager to guide the employee into seeing how these sometimes boring tasks are important to their jobs and the organization. Many people need help seeing how these small tasks relate to the large meaning of the company.

Discuss the meaning of the relationships

Employees find meaning in their work when they are in contact with people who their work benefits and when they have positive relationships with coworkers. Leaders and managers need to help employees feel connected to the customers they are helping as well as coworkers. Leaders can create times in the workday when employees can share feedback and create a sense of community. They can also create a series of customer testimonials to help employees connect their work to the people it impacts.

Meaningfulness can be an elusive factor in the workplace, but leaders can help create an environment which creates the highest potential for employees to find it.

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