Recently I was reviewing the engagement survey results for my teams. I could not help noticing something – teams with newer, more inexperienced managers had more trouble finding meaning in their work. And this highlighted an aspect of a leader’s job I don’t often think about – meaning-making.
Finding meaning in one’s job seems to significantly contribute to job satisfaction, engagement, and intrinsic motivation. And we can see in this study by Cornerstone many employees find it very important. At the same time, leaders do not consider meaning-making a part of their responsibilities.
Job design, organizational factors, and workplace relationships all play a part in the meaning employees find in their jobs. We, as managers, may not have control over many of them. However, we can still significantly influence how our employees perceive their jobs. And we should hold ourselves accountable for our responsibilities as meaning-makers.
What brings meaning to our jobs?
There is no consensus in answer to this question among the various theories. And that only makes sense. The beauty of life is that people are different, and everybody finds meaning in something different.
Unfortunately, for us as leaders, this also implies that we can’t provide a one-size-fits-all sense of meaning and purpose to all our employees. We actually have to do the legwork and understand what is it that drives each of them individually.
One thing is certain – to find meaning in your job, you have to relate it to something greater than the simple sum of your daily tasks. And if you reflect on your own experience, you will see that the lack of such “something” is a sure-fire way to make you miserable at work.
Here are some things in which my team members and I have found meaning over the years. You might find them helpful when thinking about how you can increase your team’s sense of purpose and meaning.
The company’s products or services
If we had the opportunity, most of us would work for a company in whose products or services we believe. This could be because of the way they help our customers or the world (the services of the company I currently work at actually save lives. I cannot tell you how amazing this feels). Or we could take pride in the fact that our company is a leader at what it does. Or that its product is unique.
In any case, the actual scope of activity of the organization is a significant factor in giving us that sense of contributing to something bigger than ourselves that we perceive as meaning.
As managers, most of us can do little to affect our company’s product line. But we can do a lot to demonstrate the link between our team’s daily tasks and these products or services. Not every job in the company is involved directly in the company’s core business activities.
In such cases, you should be able to create a narrative that shows how your employees’ efforts contribute to the company’s end results and success.
This is a conversation that should happen often. Especially at times when the daily work may feel overwhelming and burdensome.
Organizational mission and values
A company is not just its products and services. Its mission, values and culture can be a profound source of meaning for the employees.
As human beings, we need some higher values that can guide us and to which we can aspire. This is visible throughout humanity’s history.
Finding a company or a team whose values you share can be a priceless path towards finding meaning in your job. And as managers, we have a magical power (as one of my team members recently called it) to create and instill the values for our team.
Apart from providing a sense of meaning for the team, the clear and articulated shared values have the added benefit of providing a framework and guideline for the team’s actions and behaviors. If implemented properly, they can be your team’s Northern star in times of doubt.
The impact your work is having on your team
Workplace relationships are foundational for motivation and well-being at work. And contributing to their team’s success has been the source of meaning for many of my most dedicated and satisfied employees.
Not surprisingly, building a cohesive team that care and support each other is the best investment a leader can make. Not just as a meaning-maker.
The nature of your work
Let’s not discount the power the actual tasks you perform may have to create a sense of meaning for you at work. And the good news is that this is the area where managers have more power to make changes and adjust.
One of the first things that we need to do is understand what the tasks that bring the most meaning to each of our employees are. Once have a good understanding of their needs, there is a lot that we can do to ensure that their day-to-day tasks give them a sense of purpose.
We can match people to tasks that they find meaningful. We can rotate mundane tasks, so they do not always fall on the same individuals. We can redesign jobs to ensure that people manage end-to-end processes, thus creating a greater sense of accomplishment. And so much more.
How your work contributes to your personal or professional growth and development
Although I have left this for last, this one is the deepest source of meaning for me. To find meaning in a job, it has to help me get closer to my personal and professional goals.
This can happen in various ways. It may be by providing me opportunities to gain new knowledge or build new skills. It could also be by allowing me to practice skills I find valuable. Or to challenge myself and leave my comfort zone.
If they know what their employees’ professional and personal goals are, managers can support in building the connection between work and personal and professional growth.
What else can leaders do as meaning-makers?
Helping your employees find meaning in their job is an incredible way to support their well-being at work and boost engagement and productivity. But our role as meaning-makers has one more facet – that of interpreters.
As leaders, we have a further and broader view of what is happening in our organization and the rationale behind the decisions. Therefore, our team can reasonably expect us to aid them in making sense of what is happening around them.
The constant and rapid change most organizations are experiencing may lead to significant frustration and disengagement unless we are there to explain, reason and justify.
I know what many of you are thinking – “It’s like I don’t have enough duties as a manager. Now I also have to be a meaning-maker?”
I get that but believe me, employees who find meaning in their work are so much more driven, engaged, happy and productive that many of your other managerial tasks will become much lighter.
You can thank me later!