Employee Engagement

Meaning in the Workplace

Bring out the best in employees by helping them discover the why behind their work.

Marcus Mossberger

As today’s workplace becomes nearly unrecognizable for older generations, one aspect of it has remained unchanged: humanity’s desire to find meaning and purpose in the work they do. And because jobs take up the majority of employees’ time -especially in today’s hyper-connected, technology-enabled world) -finding meaning at work should be a high priority for both individuals and the organizations they support.

For the millennial generation, this topic takes on added importance. According to a survey conducted by the authors of The M-Factor, more than 90 percent of Millennials said giving back through their work was essential when deciding on a job. Even more, starting in 2017, Millennials are expected to spend $200 billion per year, and one of their expectations is that organizations they spend money with need to go beyond traditional capitalist tendencies.

Organizations stand to benefit both as employers seeking to build an engaged workforce, as well as businesses seeking to attract more customers. But there is room for improvement. A survey by Deloitte revealed that while 73 percent of Millennials believe businesses can have a positive impact on the world, but they think today’s companies aren’t doing a very good job. The bottom line is pretty simple: Creating an environment of meaning and purpose at work is beneficial for both the individual and the organization.

To be clear, finding meaning at work does not mean the absence of challenge or stress. Author Simon Sinek suggests that “working hard for something we don’t care about is called stress; working hard for something we love is called passion.” For most people, meaning is reflected in their ability to give back to others and know that they are making a difference in something larger than themselves. It also allows them to use their strengths and spend time on tasks that they genuinely enjoy.

So how can this be done, and whose responsibility is it? Is it the individual’s responsibility to pursue work that they find personally meaningful, or is it the employer’s responsibility to match them with meaningful opportunities within the organization? Arguably both sides need to invest in the time necessary to find the perfect match.

There are two main ways employers can connect people with meaningful experiences at work: get to know them, and keep them engaged. A one-size-fits-all approach to work relationships never works. Managers should ask questions to better understand their employee’s personal motivations, natural abilities, career preferences, work-related weaknesses, and cultural backgrounds. For example, Millennials want to be tangibly connected to the higher purpose of the organization -not once a year but constantly. This means regular communication about how the organization’s goals are evolving, how they tie to each individual’s work, and why these changes are happening. Communication should vary by employee preference. Younger workers tend to favor technologies that allow short, non-intrusive interactions like I’m or texting versus more traditional forms of collaboration like in-person meetings and phone calls. This approach essentially breaks “the golden rule:” treat others how they want to be treated.

Organizations like eHarmony are addressing this concept with their Elevated Careers offering. The solution leverages the same assessment technology that matches singles with compatible partners, nut in this case, matching people with the perfect job. The majority of workers have taken some form of an assessment at some point in their career, and they frequently reveal one or two characteristics that prove to be surprising. For example, individuals may not realize that they have a very low acceptance of authority or that their optimism can lead to over-confidence, which can result in mistakes.

Unfortunately, most organizations rarely take the time to get to know people well before they decide if they should hire them or not, and what role is the best fit for their behavioral DNA. But forward-thinking hiring managers are beginning to recognize the opportunity to use big data, analytics, and assessments to help people find the elusive meaning they are looking for. The aggregation of information pulled from HR systems, assessments, performance metrics, and even social media can create a holistic view of each individual, enabling organizations to personalize their experience throughout their career.

After defining that meaning, it is important to maintain it. In professions like nursing and social work where deep purpose and meaning are tied intrinsically to daily activities, organizations should offer intentional and proactive opportunities to remind people of ‘the why’ behind their work. For instance, at Mayo Clinic, every meeting starts with a story about a patient whose life was impacted by their Mayo experience or a story about how a Mayo employee exhibited one of their core values. These act as reinforcements of the culture they seek to maintain. Or consider the case of heart valve manufacturer Medtronic. Once a year, workers from their assembly lines, who spend long-hours focused on menial tasks, are connected with the actual recipients of the heart valves they helped to create. The tangible fruits of their labor are on full display through the in-person stories of the patients they helped.

Finding meaning at work should be a high priority for everyone. Life is way too short to spend time without it. Napoleon Hill arguably said it best: “Success in its highest and noblest form calls for peace of mind and enjoyment and happiness which come only to the man who has found the work that he likes best.”

Tags: November 2016

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