Ten Ways Leaders Can Help Employees Find Meaning at Work

What gets you out of bed in the morning?

Chances are good that it’s not the prospect of a full day of work. Or even the promise of a paycheck.

Just like you, your employees are motivated by a wide range of factors that likely transcend the transactional nature of “you do work = I give money.”

Those factors are not the same for everyone.

What is important to some people is meaningless to others. But, we’re all united – we all yearn for a sense of purpose and meaning.

Considering we spend the majority of our adult lives at our jobs, this is a particularly important issue for our careers. Waking up day after day without a connection to our work beyond the transactional relationship of a paycheck is demoralizing and unsustainable.

Why Meaningful Work Matters…

A study on meaning in the workplace reveals that:

…some suggest that meaningfulness is a worthy end in and of itself; that is, it needs no further justification. However, perhaps because the audience of organizational scholars includes both academics and practitioners, meaningful work has also been linked to a laundry list of desirable organizational ends.

According to the study, other empirical studies have linked meaningful work to:

important work outcomes such as job satisfaction, work motivation, engagement, and performance, citizenship behaviors, and attachment to occupations and organizations.

In other words, in addition to meaning providing its own… well… meaning, it also leads to higher motivation, work performance, and company loyalty.

If helping your employees to connect to a higher purpose at work isn’t already a priority, it should be.

While there’s no guarantee of success (meaning is, after all, a deeply personal thing), it’s in a business leader’s best interest to do their best to help their employees cultivate meaning in their work.

Here are 10 proven ways you can help your employees connect with and find meaning in their work.

  1. Discuss employee strengths in regular performance conversations and quarterly or annual reviews.
  2. Help employees identify strengths using a tool like the Gallup Clifton StrengthsFinder.
  3. Assign tasks based on employee strengths.
  4. Show employees how the effective use of their strengths leads to a measurable positive result.
  5. Model and encourage appropriate social behavior in the workplace.
  6. Provide events and opportunities for socialization.
  7. Cultivate a “we’re all in this together” attitude among employees of all levels.
  8. Offer a product or service that makes a positive impact, and acknowledge each employee’s contribution.
  9. Conduct your business in an ethical, socially mindful way that your employees can feel proud of.
  10. Support a cause (or causes) that are in some way linked to your business, providing the opportunity for employees to help others directly.

Let’s look at each of these tactics to help employees connect with and find meaning in their work.

 

Individual Meaning:

Guide Employees’ to Reach Potential by Embracing Their Unique Strengths

There is no universal answer for what provides meaning. Each individual employee has their own unique definition of what is meaningful to them.

So, if you want to help your employees find meaning in their work, you’re going to have to start by getting to know each employee.

It’s important to regard and treat your employees as people. Build goodwill by remembering personal details about your employees – like their spouse’s and children’s names or that they like reading Stephen King novels. But, it’s even more meaningful to learn your employees’ strengths.

As we wrote in 7 Habits of Highly Effective Employees:

Contrary to the way most companies hire – we never hire the best candidate from a pool of candidates. We hire only when a candidate is the right fit for us. We’ve had  hiring cycles where after reviewing hundreds of applications for a position, we elected not to hire anyone. We’ve also hired multiple people when looking for only a single hire. Ultimately, for us, it comes down to finding great people who we believe would be effective and who will make our team stronger.

A Gallup article by Susan Sorenson, “How Employees’ Strengths Make Your Company Stronger,” revealed that employees who use their strengths in their work every day are six times more likely to be engaged in their jobs. The article points out:

In our extensive research, Gallup has found that building employees’ strengths is a far more effective approach to improving performance than trying to improve weaknesses. When employees know and use their strengths, they are more engaged, perform better, and are less likely to leave their company.

But, What Do Employee Strengths Have to Do With Cultivating Meaning?

An employee’s strengths are one of the building blocks that create that employee’s identity.

Focusing on and encouraging an employee to utilize their personal strengths celebrates the individual for their unique contribution.

This fosters the feeling that employees are making a difference not just because of what they do, but because of who they are. As a result, employees can find meaning in knowing that they are using their unique gifts to accomplish tasks and embrace their full potential.

A Gallup poll revealed that 61% of employees whose supervisors focused on strengths and positive characteristics were engaged in their work. Only 45% were engaged when their supervisors focused on weaknesses and negative traits; and, a mere 2% were engaged when the employees felt ignored by their supervisors.

The numbers speak for themselves. Leaders can help employees find engagement and meaning in their work by focusing on their employees’ personal strengths and positive traits.

What You Can Do

Here are some hands-on ways you can help your employees find meaning in their work through embracing their own strengths:

  • Discuss employee strengths in regular performance conversations and quarterly or annual reviews.  There are some fantastic questions in this article from the Harvard Business Review to get you started.
  • Help employees identify strengths using a tool like the Gallup Clifton StrengthsFinder.
  • Assign tasks based on employee strengths. This will lead to great results and give employees the opportunity to succeed.
  • Show employees how the effective use of their strengths leads to a measurable positive result. Share appropriate key performance indicators or revenue reports.

Employees can derive meaning through fully embracing and utilizing their personal strengths.

But, no man is an island. Let’s take a look at how leaders can also help employees find meaning at work in a social context.

 

Social Meaning:

Enable and Support Social Connections to Motivate Performance

Humans are social creatures.

We notoriously engage in behaviors that make little to no sense simply to feel like we belong. (See planking, goldfish swallowing, and Snapchat filters.) Luckily, you can tap into that same desire for social belonging in your effort to help employees find greater meaning in their work.

Whether you think of it this way or not, your business is a community. You, and all of your employees are members of that community. And your shared success – or failure – is dependent on everyone in the community.

It’s in everyone’s best interest to help the business succeed, both from a financial standpoint and from a social one.

If you like your co-workers, chances are good that you’ll want good things for them – like continuing to have a job. Research suggests that loyalty to fellow co-workers and a desire to support their well-being encourages employees to invest in their work.

Social Relationships Have a Measurable Impact

Gallup’s Q12 Survey of employee engagement shows that the presence of interpersonal relationships at work has a measurable positive value.  “I Have a Best Friend at Work” is the tenth of the survey’s “Twelve Items.”

A Gallup News article about the effect of friendships at work explains:

The evolution of quality relationships is very normal and an important part of a healthy workplace. In the best workplaces, employers recognize that people want to forge quality relationships with their coworkers, and that company allegiance can be built from such relationships.

When employees develop friendships at work, they become invested in their work friends’ success, as well as their own. This may be why Gallup has found a correlation between positive work performance and whether an employee identifies as having a “best friend” at work:

Employees with a best friend at work are 43% more likely to report having received praise at work over the past 7 days and are 27% more likely to report that their company mission makes them feel their work is important.

This research suggests that the relationships we develop at work have the potential to provide a deeper meaning for our actions there.

You can also help by creating a comfortable work environment, as we suggested in our article “The Science of Productivity and Happiness: Why Your Office is Hurting Your Company”:

Fortunately, smart companies have started improving their office layouts in order to promote better health, happiness, and productivity. Alan Hedge, a professor of ergonomics at Cornell University says that in order to combat these negative effects, “The key is breaking up your activity throughout the day.” He suggests setting an alarm to remind yourself to talk a short walk, or to stand up and stretch.

You can also change your work tools. Sit/stand desks offer a great way to combat sedentary behavior. You can inexpensively convert your desk to a sit/stand desk by using a simple cardboard box – or you can purchase an electronic sit/stand desk(these are the ones we use at our office) with preset heights.

And if you find that your work culture is toxic, don’t lose hope. You can revive it, as we advised in “How to Revive a Toxic Work Culture in 5 Steps”:

Are you seeing signs of a toxic work environment? Are your employees tired? Discouraged? Burnt out?

If you’re seeing these symptoms in more than one or two employees there’s a strong chance that a toxic culture may have crept into your workplace. That’s a problem for your business and your employees. Unhappy workers are less productive, make more mistakes, and are more likely to seek employment elsewhere.

What You Can Do

Now, you obviously can’t play matchmaker for all of your employees and assign best friends.

But, you can create a culture and environment that supports and rewards positive socialization. Here’s how:

  • Don’t scold employees for chit-chatting or making social rounds through the office (within reason). In fact, model the behavior by making the social rounds yourself.
  • Provide events and opportunities where it’s okay to socialize. Happy hours, catered lunches, company sports teams or celebratory events commemorating achievements are all great options.
  • Cultivate a “we’re all in this together” attitude by encouraging higher level employees to pitch in when the going gets tough. And reward those who go above and beyond to assist their coworkers.

Many employees are happy to focus on their own little corner of the world. But, some folks think bigger. How can leaders help their employees find meaning in a broader context?

 

Greater Meaning:

Vision and Impact- Show How Employees Contribute to the Greater Good

Some people feel the need to serve a higher good. They want to create a positive impact on the world and leave it better than they found it. These employees are probably already seeking meaning in their work. You just have to communicate a meaning they can embrace.

A study from a few years ago “Meaningful Work: Connecting Business Ethics and Organization Studies” found that employees can find meaning in what they actually do, as well as from the context in which they do it.

Helping your employees to see the value in what your company actually does should be easy. Your brand should already have articulated its authentic promise to consumers. And all of your employees should know that promise and understand how their unique contributions lead to its fulfillment.

For some employees – such as health care professionals, customer service representatives, or social workers – their contributions may be obvious and direct. But for employees who don’t directly serve the public, it may be harder for them to see the good that their job brings to the world. It’s up to you to help them see.

For example, our team at crowdspring is proud that for the last nine years, we’ve offered a unique program to help worthy non-profit and charitable causes when those organizations cannot afford it. We call this program Give Back and it helps such organization with logo design, website design, print design or other design and naming projects to give them a stronger identity and presence.

Communicate Your Vision

Photo courtesy of Ben Stanfield

You’re going to need to find your inner visionary. This means identifying and communicating an inspiring vision to unite your employees in a single purpose. That vision provides a context for your employees to derive meaning from their work.

Steve Jobs is a classic example of a visionary leader. He was known for his ability and dedication to creating excitement for each new Apple product. Follow his lead. Help your employees get excited about the greater vision for your company.

How will your product or service improve people’s lives? Will you leave the Earth in a better condition than you found it? How can your company conduct its business ethically and in a socially responsible way? These are all excellent questions to ask when looking for the vision you want to share of your company.

What You Can Do

Here are three ways to help your employees connect with a higher meaning in their work:

  • Offer a product or service that improves people’s lives or the planet; and, develop an authentic brand promise that supports that mission. Acknowledge each employee’s contribution to making the mission a reality.
  • Conduct your business in an ethical, socially mindful way that your employees can feel proud of. Make these practices a central culture issue within your business.
  • Support a cause (or causes) that are in some way linked to your business, providing the opportunity for employees to help others directly.

 

Many Paths to Meaning

Entrepreneur and leadership coach David K. Williams writes in his article “How to Help Employees Find Meaning at Work,”

Research has shown that meaningfulness applies across employees’ full lives, and is driven by finding a connection to the rest of the world through their work. Organizations can support this process by developing and living a culture of ethics, morals and social responsibility that their employees can connect with and support.

Whether employees make meaningful connections through the satisfaction of using their own unique gifts at work, supporting co-workers and teammates, or through working to create a higher good – it’s always worthwhile.

Employees who find their work meaningful are happier, more engaged, and deliver better results for your business.

Let’s review our ten tips for helping your employees find meaning in their work:

  1. Discuss employee strengths in regular performance conversations and quarterly or annual reviews.
  2. Help employees identify strengths using a tool like the Gallup Clifton StrengthsFinder.
  3. Assign tasks based on employee strengths.
  4. Show employees how the effective use of their strengths leads to a measurable positive result.
  5. Model and encourage appropriate social behavior in the workplace.
  6. Provide events and opportunities for socialization.
  7. Cultivate a “we’re all in this together” attitude among employees of all levels.
  8. Offer a product or service that makes a positive impact, and acknowledge each employee’s contribution.
  9. Conduct your business in an ethical, socially mindful way that your employees can feel proud of.
  10. Support a cause (or causes) that are in some way linked to your business, providing the opportunity for employees to help others directly.

 

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