Employee engagement is much more than ensuring employees are “satisfied” with aspects of their jobs, including compensation, benefits, and basic work conditions. Engagement refers to the passion and energy employees bring to their work—the discretionary effort they put forth as a result of the quality of the employee/employer relationship.
Meaning is the first “key” in the ENGAGEMENT MAGIC® employee engagement model. What is Meaning? It’s a very real and personal connection between what you value and the work you do. Your work is something of value—something of worth. It is a major part of your self-identity, or at least involves a connection between who you are and what you do. In order to be engaged at the highest level, you must see the significance of your work and how it allows you to contribute to a greater purpose. You must personally connect to the mission of the organization, and see a clear intersection between your role and your values.
What is the source of a person finding Meaning in their work?
For one of my clients, the director of Emergency and Trauma Services for a successful regional hospital system, the meaning is clear—anyone who receives an email from him sees, as part of his signature line, the following quote:
“Is nos operor, sic alius may ago” “This we do, so others may live”
For him and his staff, the meaning is inherent in the work they do. In this high-stress, fast-paced environment of emergency medicine, they are able to face the daily job challenges with the knowledge and conviction that they are, quite literally, saving lives. As the daily pressures pile up, that connection between what they do and what they believe is apparent. This leader ensures meaning is never lost. Each team member finds meaning in what he or she does, and each knows the importance of his or her role in driving the mission of the organization.
But what is the relevance to you and me? Are we clear about the meaning of our own work? What if our work isn’t about “saving lives?” And what if the connection between our personal value system and the day-to-day work we perform isn’t as obvious?
Meaning: A Key to Employee Engagement
In order to find meaning in our work, we must clearly see the connection between what we value and what we do. For some, assembling a piece of equipment connects with a love of technology. Or it may connect to an innate desire to provide superior customer service by providing the best technological solution. Or, perhaps that piece of equipment is a pacemaker, which may be used to save the life of a father of two. That meaning is different for each of us. However, if we don’t see the link, our engagement is not as high as it could be. We might need our leaders to make the link between our hands and our hearts and minds—the connection between our work activities and how we think and feel about them.
Leaders must help employees find meaning in their jobs.
If leaders want to maximize employee engagement, then they must take an active role in connecting the work with a higher purpose. Steve Jobs wanted to “make a dent in the Universe,” and his most engaged employees wanted to help him do just that. They had the sense that their effort (and, under Jobs, suffering) was worth it because their efforts would change the world.
Jack Welch helped employees, from the top of the organization to the bottom, to see the link between their efforts and “winning,” and he wrote the book on how to do it. As a result, GE employees typically see themselves as unflappable winners who are always ready for the next challenge.
What have you done, or what have you seen leaders do to make the “meaning” connection for employees in your organization? What advice do you have for making a strong connection among hands, hearts, and minds? What results have you seen in terms of employee engagement?
In this Engaging People Podcast episode: Promoting a Sense of Meaning, we discuss practical ideas and suggestions that you can implement as a manager (and on an organizational level) to help employees engage and connect them to the work they do.
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 isinherent 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.
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.
Finding Greater Meaning in My Job as an Individual
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.
Meaning is, simply defined, “I can find purpose in my work beyond just the job or the task itself.” It is one of the most important factors of all the five ENGAGEMENT MAGIC® keys for driving engagement in an organization. But how can organizations create a structure where meaning can exist? How can individuals find greater meaning in their job? How does meaning specifically relate to employee engagement?
David Long, VP of Assessment Services at DecisionWise, addresses these questions and more in an insightful podcast conversion with host Justin Warner.
Can you find meaning in your job? Some people can’t seem to find meaning in their job or see the difference their job makes. Think about the tasks you perform on a daily basis. Are you bored just thinking about them or do you feel engaged and energetic because you know there is something MORE to your job? Others look beyond the daily tasks and see more in the end product, user, or outcome of their jobs. They see MEANING in their work.
What creates meaning for employees? So many different things create meaning for employees in their jobs that we didn’t want to guess. Instead, we asked the masses, and here are 15 real-world examples of how employees find meaning in their work:
I provide speech coaching to professionals. This may include training in presentation skills, American-English pronunciation for bilingual speakers, those with strong American regional accents, or communication skills needed for leadership. When my clients say they are able to make a successful presentation, get promoted or simply feel more confident about speaking, that gives my work meaning.
One client is a highly skilled professor, but his pronunciation of American-English was so hard to understand that I had no idea what he taught until he drew me a picture. After speech coaching, he reported that his students understood him better. They got better grades and he felt more successful as a professional. My clients are highly motivated to learn, and that makes working with them very meaningful for me!
One of the core values of our company is helping others, and we apply this value not only to our customers and coworkers but also to serving those in need outside our company.
In a recent company meeting it was shared that a 17-year old boy in Honduras was treated for hearing loss and through Oeveo’s donation was provided with a hearing aid that allowed him to hear for the first time. The fact that my company gave someone the ability to hear, someone who would have never been afforded the opportunity except through our donation, truly showed what meaning is. See video here.
I already thought my cloud-based bookkeeping business was pretty cool when we founded it. However, what has become incredibly meaningful to me, and something about which I am now obsessed is that by helping my clients automate and outsource their accounting needs, it has given them so much freedom that they never thought was even possible.
The buzz you get when a client emails you to ask what you need from them, and you respond and say, “Nothing” is great. Clients are finding more saved time than they ever expected. Some spend it with family, taking up hobbies, or planning an expansion––it’s very exciting to see clients liberate themselves from the shackles of hated tasks!
When I first went into private practice as a tax professional, it was a bit scary. You took anything that walked, crawled or hopped into the office. You didn’t say no to any tax work.
I met a client who had a tax problem that spanned 10 years. She came in initially for tax preparation on a current year but told me that she had been through 5-6 tax professionals, about 3-4 IRS agents, etc. No one could help with her problem and it just seemed endless. Just as an IRS agent was working through her case and the client thought it would be over, the IRS agent would be transferred, or would retire, etc. and she had to start all over again. The previous tax practitioners she went to couldn’t help. I asked her if I could take a shot at it. You could tell she didn’t think there was a snowball’s chance in settling this. I took the case on. I was able to go back to the initial 10-year old problem, obtain some old microfiche from the IRS, make our case, and get the whole thing closed successfully. An employer had duplicated a W-2 and for 10 years, the IRS tried to say the client had double the income she did.
It was exciting to help someone with an ongoing tax problem that was considered unsolvable, and I got to do some good detective work to sort the whole thing out and to argue the case before the IRS and win.
Tax problems really knock people for a loop, and it’s a burden many people carry with them for years, until it’s settled, so this case had great meaning for me. And many years later, I still have this client.
I started my company that makes teething toys and pacifiers for babies in 2009 with no experience in the consumer products industry. My background is in Information Technology and Finance, but in 2008 when we had our first baby I knew that I wanted to focus my career on a more meaningful path. I wanted to show my children that life wasn’t about money and that it was about doing what you believe in and finding meaning in that passion. This involved leaving a very comfortable career making 6 figures to move in the direction that I felt God was leading me. It hasn’t been easy, but there isn’t really any career that is.
Through faith and tenacity, Little Toader is a success. Our products are sold around the world and in stores like Walmart, Toys R Us, Destination Maternity, Barnes and Noble and buybuy Baby.
I photograph ridiculously happy people. I specialize in weddings and portraits, and just this past June I photographed a fantastic wedding for the sweetest young couple, Marlee and Dan. For each wedding shoot, I make a list of family photos I am to take, and Marlee and Dan’s included a photo with Marlee’s grandmother. She wasn’t super mobile, so Marlee and I came to her at her seat and I snapped a few photos of them talking with one another. I included one in their sneak peek video the next week.
Not long after the wedding, I received a message from Marlee asking if they could please have a copy of the photo as Marlee’s grandmother had recently passed away, and this was the most recent photo of her. The family wanted to use it at her funeral.
This was so significant. We photographers prattle on about the importance of preserving family memories, but we rarely experience these things so shortly after an event like a wedding. In this sad time for Marlee and her family, I was able to bring them smiles and relieve a little bit of stress. I could actually see how my work can brighten my clients’ lives. It’s not just about decorating my clients’ walls, but actually helping them heal and remember the good times fondly!
Twice a year, my Medicare-related insurance company offers a $1000 scholarship for students age 50+ who are returning to school to get a degree. Our clients are baby boomers, so we designed the scholarship to give something back. Several of our employees are on the scholarship committee, which spends several weeks every Spring and Fall reviewing hundreds of applications to find a winner. While grades are important, we weight the scholarship heavily toward students who have a history of community service, especially if it’s to the elderly.
My brother and I own this business and we both went to college on scholarships. It’s awesome to be able to pay it forward to other worthy students. It’s been a meaningful way that we can give back to the community from which we earn our living and also foster and encourage community service that helps and supports older people.
As the content writer for TruckDrivingJobs.com I find myself frequently engaged in crafting content for our online presence that is informative to truck drivers who visit our site and read content that may educate those who new to or considering a career in the commercial trucking industry.
I recently wrote a piece for our site entitled, The Problem With Using A Lot Lizard – How to End Human Trafficking. The unfortunate truth is that human trafficking is still a problem in the United States and our audience (truckers) may see instances of this all too commonly. I wrote the piece to serve as an update to the issue as well as to give drivers resources in which to aid the problem if they wished to help.
The piece received a great deal of attention within our inner circle of readers as well as networks adjacent to us including driver advocacy groups, human trafficking organizations, and individual truckers who took note and shared the piece. In the time that followed publishing the piece, I had several drivers email me and thank our site for the information found within the article and several others asking if they had permission to share the piece. It made me feel great to know that something I helped contribute had the ability to cause such a visceral reaction within the trucking community.
On Father’s Day our CEO, Tom Bognanno wrote a Huffington Post article called, Skip the Tie and Help Save Dad’s Life This Father’s Day to raise awareness for men’s prostate cancer. Tom wrote about his personal battle with prostate cancer and encouraged men to get tested and for families to skip the tie and save dad’s life on Father’s Day. My husband and our CFO, Molly’s husband read Tom’s piece and immediately contacted their doctors. ZERO: The End of Prostate Cancer named Tom their Zero Hero of the month––and we spread the word through our website, social media, email newsletter, and more. Every day we come to work knowing we are building stronger, healthier communities, and helping everyone live healthier lives. Very rewarding!
Customers always leave us reviews telling us how special their personalized gift was and how much the recipient loved it. This always makes you feel good about your work but one customer’s comment really touched me.
A woman purchased a personalized whiskey decanter as a wedding gift for their father. It was engraved with a special note saying, “Out of all the walks, this one is my favorite.” She explained that this gift gave her the opportunity to express how much she truly loved her dad. She later told us that when she gave the gift to her dad, they had not spoken in years and that her father started to cry when he opened the personalized gift. They now talk all the time and have become very close. She wanted to thank us for helping make it happen.
Customer experiences like this give me meaning in the work we do and gifts that we send. Finding meaning in my work motivates me to continue to produce memorable gifts for our customers.
I worked for a year at an organization benefiting career-oriented women. We provided networking events, professional memberships, opportunities to be featured in online newsletters, press releases, and more. But, what I loved best about the organization was not so much the products and professional memberships; rather, the fact that the organization was so rooted in feminism. I was surrounded by employees who believed in equal rights, equal pay, and equal treatment — and I was proud to share my own views with my colleagues. I felt that we all worked together to help professional women earn the respect that they deserve.
After a diverse and successful 31-year career at IBM, I retired and formed my own diversity and career development consultancy in 2010.
For 4 years I was IBM’s global corporate LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) Diversity Manager. It was so exciting to help create an equal playing field and having a positive community impact on an often maligned and oppressed minority. Addressing discrimination and lack of understanding on one side and providing hope and inspiration that things are getting better on the other side gave me great satisfaction in work that impacted lives.
As a mom, I know hundreds of others whose career choices are impacted by family reasons and life events. Many have struggled to make an impact or find the right resources. So my longtime friend and I were motivated to co-found Maroon Oak, a free career platform to connect women locally and virtually.
Build the career you love!
As entrepreneurs and moms, our life is very demanding––running a lean startup needs both a huge time commitment as well as sizable resources. Lots of learning, many pressures, late nights and crazy days. And most of all, you need tons of motivation and support to keep going!
Every career connection we help make on our platform forges an ever-growing link! That’s why we do it––it’s exciting and fulfilling for us to see the numerous women members who have connected successfully though us.
I am the editor and marketing manager for Enjuris.com, a website that provides resources to people after life-altering accidents. Over 10 years ago, my sister nearly lost her life in a motorcycle accident. Knowing how impactful that accident remains for her and our family, I wanted to create a way to let her, and others like her, share their stories. It can be therapeutic for survivors to share their experience with others. Knowing that I can be the catalyst for that brings meaning to my work.
Seeing people break through financial roadblocks, save more money and secure better futures is incredibly rewarding, however, there is one project I worked on recently which held particular significance for me.
The international money transfer industry is big business in America, with more than 84.3 million people in America sending $140.7 billion to people in other countries last year. Research shows the number one reason people send money overseas is to support friends and family, a significant portion of remittances are necessary transactions for those who rely heavily on them, a fact some institutions appear to exploit through inflated fees and rates.
To help bring some transparency to the industry, and more competitive choice to those making and receiving international money transfers, Finder embarked on a three-month research project into the industry and best practice.
The research findings lifted the lid on the international money transfer industry, such as the fact Americans spend an estimated $2.59 billion in fees they don’t know about.
We saw the industry set a new benchmark, with a number of providers amending services to lift their standard, providing more competitive choice to consumers. Knowing that people are getting a better deal on their international money transfers, with friends and family receiving more on the other end has given real meaning to the work we do.
Meaning, an Essential Key to Lasting Employee Engagement
We’ve seen some examples of how employees find meaning in their work. People can find meaning in seemingly routine and distasteful work. The opposite is also true––employees working in seemingly engaging, challenging, fulfilling jobs can become disengaged if they cannot find meaning in them.
There must be something inherent in the workplace that enables the employee to serve a purpose uniquely important to him or her. It’s up to the organization to till the soil and lay down the nutrients that allow people to create their own meaning out of what may be mundane or exhausting, then stand back and let that meaning find its own form.
Finding meaning and connection when it’s 100 degrees outside, one o’clock in the afternoon, not a cloud in the sky, and 38 pallets of sod are waiting to fill in an acre of land, isn’t necessarily ideal. If you haven’t laid sod before, just imagine lifting a couple thousand 20-pound slabs of pre-cut dirt and grass one by one and carefully placing them on the ground in a brick-stack pattern to create an instant yard. Not only is the sod heavy like thick rolls of carpet, but there is A LOT of it! And the heat! This may seem like a crazy idea to most but this is what the DecisionWise team did recently for one of our own…did I mention the heat?
At this time last year, I was eating lunch with my good friend and co-worker. It was just me and him at a small Mexican joint when he received a call from his wife. By the look on his face I could tell it must be something serious. He politely excused himself from the table and took the phone conversation outside. As I ate my food I watched him pacing back and forth outside the window. He had a deep crease in his brow indicating serious concern for whatever his wife was telling him. He returned to the table, picked up his food, and without explanation he was gone. I finished my meal wondering what the news could be. It would turn out to be worse than I thought.
I returned to my office and completed my work for the day not paying much attention to what had transpired earlier with my buddy at the Mexican restaurant. As I drove home I dialed his number to see if everything was all right, not knowing what to expect. He picked up and proceeded to tell me that his 7-month-old daughter had just been diagnosed with leukemia, cancer of the blood cells. My heart sank. My baby boy was the same age and I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I didn’t even know children that young could be affected by cancer. What could I say or do that could ease the stress, pain, and worry? No one knew the journey that lay ahead, the long conversations with doctors trying to understand the sickness, the sleepless nights next to their sick child laying in a small hospital crib, the side effects from chemotherapy that can bring even the strongest of adults to their knees, and the constant, pounding stress. Since that day, many people have reached out to offer help and any type of assistance possible to my friend and his young family, and frankly that’s about all we can do.
Eleven months later, his daughter is still undergoing treatments that cause loss of hair and other painful and uncomfortable side effects. She has a difficult time keeping solid food in her body so she receives nutrition via a tube that she wears constantly. After all her small body has been through, she still maintains an infectious smile and the energy to want to play with her big sister outside on the grass under the big blue sky. One problem though, there is no grass. Well, not yet.
Using every spare moment where he was not in the hospital, my friend has worked tirelessly to get his yard prepped. Single-handedly installing a sprinkler system he now has a permanent trucker hat tan on his scalp. But I haven’t heard a single complaint as he prepared for the new grass his two daughters could enjoy together.
A week before the sod was to arrive, the DecisionWise team approached my friend with an offer: allow the team to come together and install the sod in his yard so his daughters could have an enjoyable place to play. And that’s exactly what we did. Twenty DecisionWise team members got work done early and changed into their grubby work clothes for an afternoon to serve one of our own. We gathered work gloves, wheelbarrows, hats, sunscreen, water, and of course pizza, and separated into assembly lines of sod layers. With sweat dripping, slab after slab of instant grass was laid in an organized manner until the entire front and back yards were green—ready to be played on by two young sisters. It was hard work, but it was our pleasure to be able to put our own teachings into practice, especially for one of our own team members and friends.
At DecisionWise, our team of consultants guide corporate leaders on how to lead staff and build successful teams. We even wrote the book on employee engagement, ENGAGEMENT MAGIC®: Five Keys for Engaging People, Leaders, and Organizations, in which we teach about meaning, autonomy, growth, impact, and connection. Helping a sick child obviously taps into MEANING.But that wasn’t the only key in play that day. In just a few short hours, we went from a dust bowl to a lush yard; the IMPACT of our presence was unmistakable. Not to mention seeing the eyes of those sweet little girls. In fact, the CONNECTIONwith those girls, my friend and his wife, and all my colleagues sweating it out that day has gone through the roof. And you know what? Working for a company that gave us the AUTONOMY to take work off and help out both empowered me and increased my CONNECTION to it as well. Touching on all these ENGAGEMENT MAGIC® keys might explain why, despite the physically uncomfortable nature of the task, nothing but smiles shone through the dirt and sweat stained faces that day.
It was MEANING and CONNECTION, two of the five keys of employee engagement, which brought the DecisionWise team together that day. My friend and his wife were effusive in their gratitude to everyone for showing up and giving of their time and effort to help out that day. The DecisionWise team in turn thanked them for giving us the opportunity to serve, connect, and find a deeper meaning in our jobs. They received more than a yard and we received more than some time off of work.
It’s easy to show up for work every day and complete tasks, but that will never keep us authentically engaged. Finding meaning, making an impact, and building connections in both our job and with the PEOPLE we work with produce authentic lasting engagement.
I always find myself to be extra pensive at this time of year—looking back on the learnings, experiences, joys, mistakes, and everything else from the previous year, as well as excitedly, and somewhat anxiously, considering what the future may hold. I ultimately end up running myself through a philosophical exercise to determine whether or not I made progress toward my life’s purpose in the last year and what meaning I found. Heavy stuff, I know. January can be a bit exhausting.
My personal life this year involved some pretty major changes, all of which moved me closer toward fulfilling various pieces of what I have decided is my life’s purpose, so this January my reflections have been overwhelmingly positive. However, not all Januarys have been this blissful for me. One in particular comes to mind.
I was fresh out of my undergrad, working in a job that had absolutely nothing to do with my major, but it promised to give me “good general business experience,” whatever that meant. I had done some world traveling, studied interesting subjects, volunteered for a few causes, and now it was time to be a real adult. And I was miserable.
I sat in a cubicle from 8 to 5, poring over detailed reports and making minor adjustments here and there, which could probably have been made by a computer program. I found myself regularly wondering, “What’s the point?” I felt zero sense of purpose in my job, and those same feelings began to invade my personal life. I hit what I have now affectionately termed my Quarter Life Crisis.
That January I realized that I needed to make some major changes during the year, or else the next January would be even worse, which made me sick to even consider. By the following January, I was halfway through my first year of graduate school, on a completely different career path, and I was significantly happier. Why? Because I had figured out my life’s purpose regarding my career, and I was making progress toward that purpose.
Not all of us are in a position to completely change career tracks to find meaning. And really, that usually isn’t necessary. But we do all need to understand the meaning in our work and make progress toward our individual purpose.
Just last week I was impressed by the meaning a Walmart cashier found in her job—I watched as she made a point of having a positive conversation with every single person who walked through her line. Sure her actual work is to scan barcodes and collect payment, but she finds meaning each day by helping hundreds of people to smile. No one provided her with that meaning—I’ve seen plenty of other cashiers who do nothing more than their assigned work. But she managed to find the meaning herself.
If you don’t currently find meaning in your job, seek it out. It’s not about if your job has meaning and purpose—the question is, do you? Don’t wait for someone in management to hand you meaning and purpose on a platter—go find it for yourself.
I recently wrote a post explaining why perks aren’t sufficient for employee engagement and long-term retention, and it got me thinking – then what is sufficient? What really causes an employee to be engaged and dedicate many years of service to an organization?
As I was finishing up grad school a few years ago and searching for that perfect post-MBA job, I interviewed with a wide variety of companies across the country. One of my favorite sets of questions for my interviewers was, “How long have you been at your company?”, followed up with, “And why do you stay?” I found that most hiring managers had been at their company between three and seven years, and they all gave answers about a good variety of work, growth opportunities, or some kind of benefits. In recent months, I learned that almost all of these hiring managers have since moved on to “greener pastures” at new companies.
After months of searching and more interviews than I care to remember, I found a job that looked promising. The company was the right size, in the right industry, in the right area. The variety of work, growth opportunities, and benefits all looked fairly positive, and I was looking for one last thing to finally tip the scales. As the interview process continued, I finally flew out for an on-site interview. I met with my potential manager, answered a few more behavioral interview questions, and finished up by asking her my favorite questions.
“So how long have you been at the company?”
“Let me see… almost 25 years now. Yeah, I guess it really has been that long.”
Stunned silence, as I thought to myself, “She’s been here since I was in diapers.”
Finally I managed to reply, “That’s quite the accomplishment. I’ve got to know – what is it that has kept you here all these years?”
“I absolutely love the people I work with, and I love what I do.”
It was that simple. She had built a strong connection with her team, and she was in a role that played to her strengths and allowed her to have a positive impact on the organization. It had nothing to do with benefits or promotion schedule; it was about the people and the job.
A few years later I found myself looking for another job and began my interview process once again. I found a position that looked interesting in a growing company and went in for a round of interviews. This time I found that all of my interviewers had been at the company for a minimum of eight years, ranging all the way up to nineteen. I was shocked, especially because this job was in the tech world of Silicon Valley where average tenure tends to land around four years. I asked each interviewer what was keeping him/her at the company. And every single one of them responded similarly: “I love the people I work with, and I love what I do.”
The best strategies for long-term engagement and retention have very little to do with stock packages, perks, or bonuses, but much more to do with building connections and providing impact and meaning for employees.
The Philips Work/Life Survey examined key factors of Americans’ job happiness, with a particular focus on their ability to bring personal interests to their workplace career as a way to create more job satisfaction, achieve greater shared success with their employers, and improve overall well-being.
Meaning is one of the five essential elements of employee engagement. What surprises me most about Philip’s survey results is the apparent willingness by participants to actually take a pay deduction in exchange for a more meaningful job. Do you agree with the findings? Are you like one of the 43% who said they would be willing to take a pay decrease of 25% or more in exchange for greater meaning? Enjoy the infographic below (source: Philips), then share your thoughts with us in the comments. Is meaning at work really more important than a bigger paycheck?
Shawn Achor’s book, “The Happiness Advantage,” takes an in-depth look at the way happiness impacts people in the workplace. Much of his research and suggestions have a direct connection with employee engagement, raising an interesting discussion: whether happiness is a component of employee engagement, or vice versa.
Many psychologists define happiness as a positive mood and an optimistic outlook for the future. The pioneer of positive psychology, Martin Seligman, defines happiness as a combination of pleasure, engagement, and meaning. Achor summarizes happiness as “the joy we feel striving after our potential.” Engagement Employee engagement can be defined in terms of both a feeling (state) and by behaviors (outcomes, results). People who feel engaged in their work and life experience a sense of energy and excitement about what they do. They genuinely like their work and look forward to accomplishing the tasks before them. These feelings lead to outcomes such as active participation in work, higher levels of contribution, and giving their best effort. The Chicken or the Egg
So which comes first, happiness or engagement? Do employees have to be happy before they can be engaged, or do employees become happy when they are engaged? Perhaps it can work either way, depending on the employee. Those who develop a sense of happiness will also find that they are more engaged in their work. Employees who are more engaged in their work will also find greater happiness in their lives. Join the discussion: How do you define happiness and engagement? Related Post: What Employee Engagement Is Not Related Post: Money: Happiness, Satisfaction, and Engagement are Completely Different Things Related Post: The Employee Engagement Choice: Job, Career, or Calling?