From Both Sides: How to Create a Sense of Meaning at Work

From Both Sides: How to Create a Sense of Meaning at Work

If you want an engaged workforce that will follow you through good and bad times, you need to create a sense of meaning in what your staff does.

If you want an engaged workforce that will follow you through good and bad times, you need to create a sense of meaning in what your staff does.

Each generation of employees brings changes, and the upcoming graduates of today and new employees want meaning in their work. While employees from generations past would have liked some kind of meaning in what they did, Gen Z demands it and other team members are following suit.

If you want an engaged workforce that will follow you through good and bad times, you need to create a sense of meaning in what your staff does. Employees also need to develop their own sense of meaning if they want to push their careers forward. Let’s look at the process of finding meaning at every level of the organization.

Employers Should Strive to Create Meaning in Employee Work

Culture starts at the top of a company. You can’t ask something of your team without giving them the right tools or training. This applies to meaning as much as to a project or task. You can’t demand meaning without creating a meaningful environment. Here are a few ways you can do this.

Consider How You Motivate Employees and Provide Meaning

It’s often the managers who set the tone for employee motivation. Good managers create a work environment that encourages employee buy-in; poor managers do the opposite, driving staff away.

There are four key traits that set the best leaders above the rest when it comes to motivating their teams, according to organizational psychologist Lewis Garrad and psychologist Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic. These are:

  • They are curious about the company, industry and challenges before them — which curiosity allows managers to explore new ideas or look at problems in different ways.

  • They are relentless in their pursuit of achieving the organization’s goals, and will keep discovering new ways of doing things.  

  • They are a good culture fit and reflect the values of the company, which encourages other team members to align themselves the same way.

  • They trust their employees to do their best work without micromanagement and trust that their managers are making the best decisions possible.

Avoid Burdening Your Employees With Busywork and Bureaucracy

Everyone has tasks in the workplace that they don’t want to do, but if the number of those tasks keep increasing, you risk team members checking out. “If your business is teeming with excessive rules, processes or bureaucracy, all that messaging is empty rhetoric,” writes Lisa Bodell, author and CEO of innovation training programs provider, “Nothing separates individuals from a sense that their work is worthwhile than the curse of complexity.”

Bodell explains that unchecked complexity creeps into companies and makes them less nimble, while adding confusion and busywork for employees. Team members become so focused on small tasks they lack a bigger vision and drive. They can’t see the forest for the trees.

A sense of meaning is sometimes as basic as recognizing your team.

A sense of meaning is sometimes as basic as recognizing your team.

Acknowledge the Efforts of Your Staff

Developing a sense of meaning is sometimes as basic as recognizing your team for their effort and work within the company. “When you’re recognized for good work you’ve done, you’re more prone to move on to do more good work,” says Eric Mosley, CEO of performance management platform Globoforce. He finds that praise directly correlates to meaning. One survey by his company found that 93 percent of employees who were validated in the last month said their work gives them purpose, compared to 72 percent who were not praised.

The recognition doesn’t have to be major or time-consuming. Small pats on the back can go a long way. In fact, Samantha Campbell at the employee scheduling software provider When I Work has a list of 37 ideas of how you can show employee appreciation. These range from passing around an office trophy to taking your team out for a spontaneous thank-you lunch.   

You may not think you need dozens of ways to recognize your employees, but managers must understand that motivation comes in all shapes and sizes.

“Because no two people are motivated the same way, they should not be recognized in the same way,” writes Rob Danna, SVP at engagement solutions provider ITA Group. “Consider offering a blend of recognition tactics across the organization to keep your employees and sales team engaged and motivated both intrinsically and extrinsically.” For every one employee that wants a company-wide email about their accomplishments there is another that wants more autonomy or to receive additional training to grow.

Show Employees How Their Effort Pays Off

Giving employees at least some connection to the customer or end user creates empathy in employees, management consultant Andrew Spence notes. While not every employee is customer-facing, finding channels to share feedback or establish customer connections can give employees real people to think about when they’re doing work. Spence uses the example of a prosthetics company that invited a few customers to attend town-hall meetings, so employees who work in finance and HR were able to meet the people they helped.

This advice also applies to remote teams that may feel isolated from the overall mission and are likely to check out if they don’t understand why they are doing something or if it is valuable.

Digital media consultant John Boitnott encourages managers to find ways to show that the work by remote employees is valued and effective. Small steps, like sharing customer feedback or the results of a final project, can give remote team members closure on their work and the satisfaction of a job well done.

You can’t force your employees to find meaning in what they do, but you can create a meaningful environment.

You can’t always count on your boss to make your job meaningful.

You can’t always count on your boss to make your job meaningful.

Employees Can Find Meaning Within Themselves

While management and senior leadership play a significant role in creating meaning for their staff, you can’t always count on your boss to make your job meaningful. Even if your leadership team tries to create meaning, you may not respond to their efforts and instead need to find meaning in your work yourself.

“Purpose is built not found,” John Coleman, coauthor of “Passion & Purpose: Stories from the Best and Brightest Young Business Leaders” writes. “Working with a sense of purpose day-in and day-out is an act of will that takes thoughtfulness and practice.”

Coleman uses an example of hospital janitorial staff, where the happiest employees took steps to serve patients and make the best experience possible. They studied chemicals in cleaners to find out what would irritate people less and looked for ways to connect with patients in a meaningful way. Their work become purposeful because they made it that way.

Here are a few ways you can find meaning in your work, whether you are running the entire department or running around as an intern.

Understand Why Something Gives You Meaning

Organizational psychologist Adam Grant says people ask him all the time how they can make their work more meaningful. He encourages them to get to the “why” of meaning. Start by listing things that give you meaning and ask yourself why that is so.

For instance, if volunteering gives you meaning because you can help the lives of others, look for ways that you can help people in your work. If exercise is meaningful because you overcome challenges and set goals, look for ways to similarly challenge yourself at work. This process will help you discover what moves you.

Rethink the Work You Do

In the same way that the hospital janitorial staff found value in creating a clean, comfortable place for patients, you can rethink your daily tasks and how they impact the organization.

“In my consulting work with companies, I encourage employees to rewrite their job description to be more calling-focused,” Shawn Achor, author of “The Happiness Advantage” explains. “I have them think about how the same tasks might be written in a way that would entice others to apply for the job. The goal is not to misrepresent the work they do, but to highlight the meaning that can be derived from it.”

Having a skill or completing a daily task is one thing, but tying everything back to the company’s end goals helps give people purpose.

Build meaningful relationships and trust.

Build meaningful relationships and trust.

Build Strong Relationships With Your Coworkers

Relationships matter, says Shannon Schuyler, Chief Purpose Officer at PwC. The people you work with each day can build you up or keep you down. “Shared experiences help employees come together in ways that build meaningful connections and trust, help make a collective impact and provide opportunities for learning,” she explains.

Look for opportunities for collaboration or cross-training where you can learn new skills while helping take the workload off of someone else. You may discover something you love doing while building a support system around you.

Identify Your Strengths and How to Apply Them

As you develop relationships with coworkers, consider what strengths you have and how you can help your colleagues in areas where they’re weak.

“Using strengths in service of others or in helping to make a difference in the world creates meaningful work,” writes clinical psychologist Suzy Green, founder of The Positivity Institute. “However, many people in the workplace have no idea what their strengths are and spend little of their day using them.”

Ask your manager for feedback on your strengths or review your work to see what you enjoy doing. Then look for ways to apply these traits to other tasks and projects around the workplace.

Develop Opportunities to Give Your Work Meaning

Even if the company you work for isn’t the most engaging or the final products aren’t exciting, you can still create your own sense of meaning in the workplace.

Brothers Craig and Marc Kielburger, cofounders of the WE Movement, wrote a book called “WEconomy: You Can Find Meaning, Make A Living, and Change the World.” They encourage employees to create fundraisers and food donation options within their departments. Your team could also offer pro bono work to nonprofits or have group volunteer days. This makes your office a better place to be every day, even if the majority of your work isn’t as engaging as you would like.

Have Faith That Your Work is Important

The team at digital media company STEMedia partners with businesses, organizations and academic institutions to help them better engage students and professionals. They encourage employees alike to have faith in the work they are doing in their job — even if it looks and feels like busywork. A task that is seemingly meaningless or frustrating for you could have immense value to someone else in the company.

You may even consider talking to your manager to better understand why the work is important or to brainstorm ways that some tasks can be improved. However, you aren’t always owed an explanation at work. While many managers will try to explain the benefits of a task, you can’t always expect them to justify your spent time.

Focus on the Task at Hand

Stop multitasking Kathleen McAuliffe at Zapier advises. You can’t find meaning in what you’re doing if you’re trying to accomplish three things at once. Changing your workflow so that you focus on one particular task at a time allows you to better understand the value in the work. This is certainly something to consider next time you use a conference call as an excuse to catch-up on emails.

Not every task will be meaningful, but if team members can find meaning in the mission of the organization and the people they work with — or by rethinking the job itself — they can create meaning and stay engaged in the company.

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