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Help Your Employees Find Meaning and Purpose at Work

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In The Will to Meaning, Viktor Frankl argues that if people can find meaning and purpose in life they can realize their potential.

These concepts are value-laden and therefore subjective.  Some of us recognize our innate abilities early in life, have a real passion for what we do and are intrinsically motivated by our work.  Others find it hard to identify what they want to do, while some people know what they would like to do but are constrained by limitations and cannot realize their ambitions.

For the majority of people, work forms a significant part of their lives and even when they are not ‘at work’ they often think about work and discuss it with friends and family.  Indeed, the use of technology to facilitate flexible and remote working means that the workplace now extends to where we live and travels with us.  It is therefore important that we find meaning and purpose in our chosen vocation.

Whatever an individual’s situation it can be argued that employers have a responsibility to create a work environment that allows them to find meaning and purpose in what they are doing with leaders trying to align the meaning and purpose of followers with meaning and purpose of the organization.

Research has shown that meaning and purpose can be nourished through people’s feelings of:

  • competency: efficacy, self-efficacy;
  • autonomy: self-regulation;
  • relatedness: belonging, self-esteem.

In considering the employee workplace experience, employers should therefore consider how they match people to jobs, style of leadership, the development opportunities which they are offered and design of the working environment.

Meaning can also be considered at different levels:

  • Everyday: Self-regulation, self-maintenance and self-propagation, instincts, drives, motivation and emotions. Meaning emerges to help us with sense-making.
  • Encounters: With the unexpected, negative, threatening. Leads to feelings of frustration, anxiety, fear, guilt, anger. Meaning is adaptive to help us overcome by developing solutions.
  • Existential: When our fundamental beliefs and reasons for existence are questioned or all our basic need are satisfied, we explore, for instance, the metaphysical, to restore meaning.

Practical Implications

In 2019 Deloitte’s Global Human Capital Trends it is suggested that employee experience should become a more human experience.  The report suggests that organizations should move beyond thinking about experience in terms of rewards and instead focus on job fit, design and meaning. Some 41 per cent of respondents felt that their organizations were not effective or only somewhat effective in creating a positive work environment; 46 per cent of respondents felt that their organizations were not effective or only somewhat effective in creating meaningful work; and 57 per cent of respondents felt that their organizations were not effective or only somewhat effective in creating growth opportunities.

They suggest that leaders should help employees find meaning at work by learning and applying the following seven drivers of meaning:

  • increasing clarity about identity and signature strengths: evolving their identity by using their personal values and strengths at work;
  • gaining a sense of purpose to understand better what motivates us: staying grounded in a purpose and a direction that connects personal drives to a common good;
  • managing work complexity through teamwork: enjoying satisfying relationships where they feel respected and attached;
  • replacing social isolation with positive work settings: creating positive work environments that sustain their productivity;
  • identifying and responding to challenges that we care about and engage us: tackling challenges that invite growth and innovation;
  • growing from change by learning and becoming resilient: finding value even in setbacks as they learn and bounce back;
  • building sources of delight and civility into our work routines: appreciating the daily delights of civility, creativity, humour, playfulness, and pleasure.

Organizational environments should be designed to allow these innate needs to flourish. Some examples of how organizations can enact this include:

  • using a tool, such as Hogan’s MVPI, to understand an individual’s motives and values
  • using a strength-based leadership tool, such as CharacterScope, to support discussions on an individuals natural leadership contribution to team and firm pupose
  • creating a psychologically safe workplace environment where innovation is encouraged
  • creating an inclusive workplace environment which celebrates diversity of thought
  • discuss in teams how individual meaning and purpose and organization meaning and purpose map across each other