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Helping Employees Find Meaning at Work

Neon sign reading 'do something great'

Once upon a time, a traveller came across three stonemasons. All were hard at work. The traveller stopped to ask them what they were doing.

The first answered in a grumpy tone: “Can’t you see? I’m chiselling lumps of stone. It’s tough, monotonous work. The weather is terrible, and my hands hurt.”

The second answered “I’m working with my friends here to build a wall. You’re looking at the finest team of stonemasons in the country – we’re well-known for the quality of our work.”

The third answered with a proud smile, “I’m building a great cathedral.”

This unattributed old story has several versions. But all centre on the issue of finding meaning at work, and on the likely impact on wellbeing for those who find their work meaningful, or meaningless.

Positive Psychologist Martin Seligman suggests having meaning in our lives is one of three pathways to happiness. He describes a meaningful life as ‘using your signature strengths in the service of something larger than you are’ (Seligman, 2002).  We see it in the stonemason engaged in using his skills to build a beautiful cathedral…compared to the one who sees only the daily grind of painful work with lumps of rock in awful weather.

Is beauty only in the eye of the beholder? Or can organizations help their employees find meaning in their work, even if currently they see none?

Wharton Management Professor Adam Grant would say yes, organizations can help. Over the course of many years researching what motivates employees in a number of settings, he’s discovered that employees with an understanding of how their daily work has a positive impact on others are happier and more productive than those without this understanding. He’s also found that helping employees build this understanding doesn’t need to be time-consuming or difficult.

In one experiment, Grant studied university employees paid to recruit financial donors to the institution. Essentially the work involved ‘cold calling’ – not on the face of it the most fulfilling work, with a track record of low morale and high attrition. Grant and his research colleagues connected a sample of these employees with scholarship students, whose scholarships had been paid for by money given by previous financial donors. The students talked with employees for just five minutes about the difference their scholarships had made to their lives.

The result? More motivated employees who spent over twice as long on the phone and brought in vastly more donations than their colleagues. Those five-minute conversations had helped them to see and hear how their work contributed to something meaningful.

“Why?”

The conversations between the university employees and the scholarship students addressed something important. They gave a worthwhile answer to why the fundraising work was needed. Being able to answer “why?” in a range of situations and at various levels is key to helping people find meaning at work.

At the highest level is the corporate purpose statement, which should answer the fundamental question of why a company exists. Quite literally, what is the purpose of the organization? Why did its founders set it up in the first place? A good purpose statement should be meaningful to those who hear or read it, appeal to employees, customers, investors, and communities alike, and connect to emotions. According to the EY Beacon Institute, it should ‘be grounded in humanity and inspire a call to action’ (2014:10).

But whilst we don’t all have the chance to influence the company purpose statement, there are plenty of other ‘whys’ to be addressed in everyday working life. Why does my job exist? Why do I need to work on these objectives for the next year? Why is a difficult change needed? Why has the organization chosen a key new priority? Why do I need to complete this seemingly mundane and time-consuming task?

Re-framing our answers

Often, the reasons given in answer to these ‘whys’, relate to the need to satisfy shareholders, respond to a changing market or beat the competition. Rather depressingly in our experience, the answer can also far too often be “because X very-important-senior-leader/head office says so.”

It may sound rather obvious to say these kind of answers don’t help people find meaning at work, but Daniel Pink (2018) points out that business language is often rational, factual and corporate. Talk of ‘value’, ‘strategies’, ‘markets’ and ‘efficiencies’ is commonplace. However, if we’re looking to help people find meaning in their work, we need to connect to people’s hearts, not their heads.

Getting practical

If you want to help people in your organization find more meaning in their work, here are some things you can do.

  1. Explain how people’s individual work connects to something bigger. Remember Seligman’s definition of ‘using your signature strengths in the service of something bigger than you are’.

  2. Always explain and discuss ‘why’ - whether you’re talking about a change, some new objectives, or a task to be completed, explain why it matters.

  3. Find your own connection. Think about why you yourself find a task/priority/change/your own role meaningful. You’ll be better able to inspire others if you feel inspired yourself.

  4. Put yourself in the shoes of the people you’re about to communicate with and ask the questions “what does this mean?” and “why should I care?”

  5. Wherever you can, make it human. Show how someone’s work will positively impact someone else. Even better, enable them to see or hear from this person themselves. A personal story of how one human being (or animal, or place) will be helped is usually more powerful than facts and statistics.

  6. Start conversations to help people reconnect with what motivates them. Either in one-to-one conversations or team meetings, ask people what they have felt most proud of in the past month, or what most inspires them about their work. It’s always easy to focus on what’s not working or needs to be fixed. Celebrate what is working – and remember to connect to the impact it’s made to someone else.

  7. Watch the buzzwords. If you find yourself talking about strategizing, restructuring, efficiency or the markets, it’s a fair bet you’re not about to inspire meaning.

  8. Don’t fake it. If there really is nothing genuinely meaningful for people in a particular change or task, don’t try and dress it up. Your employees will see straight through it.

 

References

EY Beacon Institute (2016) The state of the debate on purpose in business (Online) www.ey.com/
Pink, DH (2018) Drive, Canongate Books
Seligman, MEP (2002) Authentic Happiness, Free Press