Meaning: Your Work Has Purpose Beyond the Work Itself

Meaning is one of the five keys in building employee engagement and it may be the most powerful of the keys. The power in Meaning comes because it is self-determined. Meaning is found when your work has purpose beyond the work itself.

How does meaning specifically relate to employee engagement?

Meaning is one of the most important factors of all the five ENGAGEMENT MAGIC® keys. As we perform driver analyses with organizations, we expect to find all the ENGAGEMENT MAGIC® factors in play – some organizations will emphasize growth, or connection, or impact – but almost, without fail, meaning will always be present as a factor for a driver of engagement in an organization.

Meaning relates to overall engagement in the sense that there are factors that lead you to either disengage or engage in organizations. Most of the factors that lead you to disengage would be things like, “I’m not paid enough” or “I don’t have training” “I don’t have tools to do my work” or “I don’t feel safe in my work environment.” Once those things are all in place, you feel pretty satisfied in your work and you aren’t really looking to leave.
Meaning is one element that brings you to the next level of commitment to the organization. It causes you to be more engaged.

Meaning, is simply defined as “I can find purpose in my work beyond just the job or the task itself.” For example, if I am assembling widgets on a factory floor, the purpose of my work might just be to assemble a widget. When I have meaning, I say “I know the purpose of this widget, and the good that it does in the world.” When that connection is made, then my commitment to my work increases exponentially.

Two Types of Meaning

The first type of meaning is inherent meaning. With this type, an individual may see the direct correlation between the work they are doing and the positive impact that happens in the world as a result their work.

The second type of meaning is associated meaning. With this type, an individual can see how the work they are doing allows them to do other things they find meaningful. A person might think, “because I do this job, I have a schedule that allows me to go to my kid’s soccer game,” or “because I do the work that I do, I have the money to pay for a house.” My work allows me to do all the other things that are meaningful to me outside of work.

Engaged company

How can an organization create a structure where meaning can exist?

Meaning is one of those things that people carry with them into the work place. When you walk through the doors on the first day of work, you have lived a life where you have established certain values and decided that certain things are personally important to you. You don’t check those beliefs at the door on the way in; they stay with you through your job. It’s unlikely that when you go work for an organization that they are going to get you to change your mind on those things that have been important to you your entire life.

However, there are a few things an organization can do to help foster meaning. First, ensure that your employees find the work you are doing important. In the selection process, the question, “Why do you want to work here?” is a really important question. If the answer is, “I want to work here because I live across the street” or “I want to work here because you pay me 25 cents an hour more than the other guy will pay me,” those really aren’t things that are going to be lasting in terms of providing meaning. But if the answer is, “what you do here is incredibly important to me. I want to be a part of that,” then that means the person is going to be walking through the door on the first day of work with a purpose that is pretty aligned to the organization.

The second thing that you can do is highlight the values and beliefs of your organization and help your employees connect the dots to their own values. Help them understand where “the way we do things here, and the things we are trying to accomplish” actually align with the individual’s values.

One of my favorite definitions for meaning is: What is important to me is important to the organization that I work for. Some organizations have official value statements or mission statements but whether or not you’ve taken the time to write your values down on a piece of paper, your organization has them.

You have values regarding the way you think work should be accomplished. You communicate those values through your actions, through decisions, based on how you deal with difficult situations. Those values are immediately visible to employees. Employees will quickly know whether or not the values you are espousing as an organization align with their own personal values.

Values Drive Meaning

Many organizations that drive meaning excel at putting their focus on an external element. For example, one of the key values of a software company I work with is “Do what you need to do to help the customer.” The value of helping the customer is so ingrained in their narrative that they talk about it every day. They are able to raise the eyesight of the entire organization, so they are no longer bickering with co-workers or evaluating fair or unfair treatment or co-worker effort and reward. They are focused on what they do together to help the customer. This common value creates meaning because almost everybody will carry that into their daily work. This value effects the decision making and thought processes of the entire organization.

engaged employees

Finding Greater Meaning in My Job as an Individual

First, focus on the people or the stake holder that you are serving as an organization. Lift your focus from “How do I get what I need out of this job?” to “How do I help other people get what they need?” Ask yourself, “How do I help them get the service that they need that will ultimately lead to an easier or better life?” If you put your focus on that, you tend to forget about your own needs and subordinate to the needs of other people; which can lead to more meaning.

Second, evaluate your own values. When I am talking about values, I’m not just talking about the things that I value. Everybody values, for example, money to some degree. I am talking about the things that are really important to you. See how those values align with the values of your organization and validate compatibility. You may conclude that there is more common ground than you originally thought. On the other hand, if there is little or no common ground and you don’t think what your company is trying to accomplish is important, then there is a chance that you will never be able to engage.

Remember, meaning is one of the most important factors to whether or not you are going to engage. If you can’t find meaning in your work, it is unlikely that you will really engage over the long-term. You might engage for a growth opportunity or for this or that, but over the long-term it’s going to be hard for you to stay motivated. If you find yourself thinking, “what I am doing is completely unimportant to me, it doesn’t fulfill any of my values, it doesn’t fulfill me as a person,” it may be time for you to go find something more personally fulfilling.

A Shared Purpose

Meaning is something that employees can learn and create but is not something that I would say most organizations should focus on. What an organization can control is creating a shared purpose for all employees. By definition, you can’t have a shared purpose if everybody is only looking out for themselves.

Lastly, creating meaning within an organization is a learned competency. Managers can be taught, “Here are the important components of creating meaning and how they can help employees see the meaning in their work.” It’s about understanding the alignment of organizational and employee values.

Listen to the podcast recording on meaning.

Further reading: “Do You See Meaning In Your Job? These Employees Do.”

Consider surveying your employees to see how meaning is impacting overall engagement.

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