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How to Make Work Meaningful for Every Employee

Maybe it’s easier for teachers, nurses, social workers, and caretakers to see the impact of their work each day. For them, it’s evidenced by the people they help each day. But everyone, regardless of job function or deliverables, seeks meaning and purpose in the work they do. A key component of improving employee engagement is understanding how to make work meaningful for every employee. 

The Importance of Making Work Meaningful  

Graphic Showing Patient in a HospitalEmployees who believe the work they do has meaning and matters to other people are more engaged, feel better about their employers, and are less likely to pursue other opportunities. 

In various surveys, up to 90% of employees say that they would accept less pay in exchange for being able to do work that is more meaningful. The bottom line is: 

  • If you want your employees to have a positive experience in the workplace, there needs to be meaning in the work that they do. 
  • If you want your employees to stick around, to stay with your organization longer, the work needs to be meaningful. 
  • If you'd like them to have a positive view of your workplace, the work will have to have some meaning for them. 
  • When there's meaning in the work. Individuals are more motivated, they're more engaged, they are more empowered, they are looking for more opportunities to develop, they're more satisfied, they're going to perform at higher levels and they're going to be more productive in the work that they do. 
  • Businesses thrive when employees see their work as meaningful. 

All of that from this one nebulous thing: making work meaningful! 

Unfortunately, fewer than 20% of employees worldwide see a connection between their company's public perception and their own work experience. In other words, the meaning they want to have in their work isn't what they're experiencing in their day-to-day experience. 

Who Is Responsible for Making Work Meaningful? 

There are only three possible answers to this question: Individual Employees, Managers, or Senior Management. Let’s consider each.

What is the individual contributor’s role in making their own work meaningful? 

It may be tempting to place the full burden of responsibility on individuals. After all, most people pursue careers that appeal to them and match their personal passions. Just like we all try to hire people who are self-motivated (so we don’t have to be responsible for motivating others), many employers expect individuals to figure out and/or remember how their work can be infused with meaning. 

While it’s true that people should seek the work that has significance and purpose to them, there’s a high risk of people losing sight of that meaning in the day-to-day grind. Many social workers, for example, enter the field to help under-served and/or high-risk groups. But then they get mired in the reporting, the compliance, the metrics, the meetings, and the mundane. They become disillusioned by the systems and bureaucracies they’re forced to operate within. Soon, it seems like “just a job” with little apparent connection to the difference they wanted to make in the world.  

Burnout is often the visible symptom when meaningfulness is lost in the fray. Doing the mechanics of the job without seeing the outcomes can be mightily demotivating. 

Performance metrics and annual reviews focus heavily on tasks completed. Meetings focus on policies and procedures. Individual contributors seldom hear or see about outcomes related to people served and differences made. Their scope is limited by their workload and task focus. 

If they could, most employees would make links between the work they do and the meaning of that work. Since they usually can’t do this on their own, it’s not fair to assume they will.  

What is the manager’s role in making work meaningful? 

As with employee engagement, frontline managers have a key role in making work meaningful. Employees need this from their manager as context for everything they do. 

Managers have a bigger picture perspective. It needs to be shared. 

The true nature of a manager’s job is to simultaneously manage work AND lead people. Part of leadership is inspiring others. To inspire, leaders understand what matters to each individual. Then they make connections between what matters and what needs to be done. It’s the WHY of work. 

When managers rely on authority, KPIs, and tools of positional power, they strip meaningfulness out of work. They subordinate both people and purpose to task completion. That’s a mistake. 

When managers keep the meaning of work at the forefront, they provide context and rationale for whatever they’re asking others to do. They explain with if/then links like “If we are going to deliver on our mission to improve people’s lives today, then we need to produce 3% more widgets.” They do this in ways that are authentic and realistic, not pie-in-the-sky. 

The links are there more often than most managers realize. The links need to be articulated and shown much more often than most managers realize. In one survey, less that 1% of managers indicated a belief that showing others the meaning of their work would be of any value to the individual or organization. 

What is the role of senior management in making work meaningful? 

Although managers need to express the meaning of work (on a personal level to each employee), senior executives and culture keepers aren’t exempt from this responsibility. 

On the contrary, individual managers need support throughout the organization to effectively communicate and demonstrate the meaning of work. Managers need:

  • Examples of inspiring people individually and expressing the meaning of their work.
  • Information and big-picture perspectives to focus on more than the day-to-day grind. 
  • Stories about outcomes where the meaning of work is clear so they can share these stories with others, too. Testimonials from customers should be used internally even more than externally.
  • Cultures and norms that celebrate impact, not just profits and goal attainment.  
  • Inspiration from their managers and others in the organization, too! 

These efforts should not be relegated to HR. While HR should be involved, making work meaningful is something that every executive, senior manager, and manager should share responsibility for doing. Like workplace culture and values, this needs to be woven into the everyday exchanges everyone has across the organization.  

How to Make Work Meaningful (no matter what kind of work it is!)

It all starts by knowing three things:

  1. What is the purpose of the work your organization does? 
  2. What is it about that purpose that resonates with each employee, at an individual level? 
  3. How does each individual’s work support the organization’s purpose AND seem meaningful to them? 

If you can’t answer these questions, you can’t be authentic in connecting the dots between tasks and meaningful outcomes. NOTE: this isn’t a generic, one-size-fits-all exercise. It MUST be individualized. 

Once you find the answers to these three questions, there are many options you can use every day. 

Let’s use an example to illustrate this. A company produces component parts that are used to regulate medical devices. The company interviews people who’s lives have been saved using those medical devices and occasionally shares these stories with employees. One employee, a factory worker on the assembly line, has a personal interest in healthy living and mentors people who are just getting started with CrossFit. 

That same employee also has clear tasks and deliverables every day for the high number of parts to produce and for the low number of quality defects. On the line, his supervisor might focus on quantity, quality, work habits, and productivity overall. 

To make links to the meaningfulness of this work, his supervisor can also make links to healthy living and how these parts give people a second chance to live. In a sense, both the CrossFit mentoring and the production of these parts are contributing to others’ health and wellbeing. Here are 10 ways a supervisor can make these links:

  1. Explaining the why of new tasks or new standards assigned. Put them in the if/then context to explain the impact and difference this will make. 
  2. Recognition of accomplishments. Instead of celebrating and awarding performance-based milestones, extend recognition to include an acknowledgement of impact. So what if an employee broke the record for most units produced in a shift? Explain why this matters and who it matters to (that’s the real meaning in the work!). 
  3. Providing constructive feedback should also include the impact. Instead of “you did it wrong,” it’s “we need to do it this way because…” and an explanation of how the end user benefits when this is done the right way. 
  4. Conducting 1-to-1 meetings or stay interviews that focus on the meaningfulness of work, not just the performance updates.
  5. Telling stories that illustrate the impact of the work being done: This is a basic human need. We all want our efforts to be meaningful. Everyone needs to know the value of the work they do. What better way than to show and tell with real examples? 
  6. Sharing the big picture. This is to build business acumen and to create understanding of the end user experience and how they benefit from the work being done. 
  7. Giving people an opportunity to suggest workflow or process improvements, to participate in decisions that affect them, and to take control of work they have mastered. 
  8. Providing occasional challenges through stretch assignments, taskforce appointments, internal mentoring, etc. People get “in the zone” when the challenge is slightly greater than their current skill level.
  9. Asking about the meaningfulness of work and how you can increase it. This may seem like a strange topic, but it’s already in the back of everyone’s mind so why not ask? 
  10. Creating shared experiences that magnify the meaning of work. Teambuilding activities that include philanthropic work or community outreach, for example, create both meaning for individuals and bonds for the team.   

Notice what’s NOT on that list. There is no mention of pay raises, bonuses, or any incentives. Those are all extrinsic motivators that are related to performance. Most managers already have a good handle on how to pull those levers. When you talk about the meaningfulness of work, you’re in the realm of intrinsic motivation (which is far stronger and longer lasting!). 

By ennobling the work and the individual employee, managers will be making a meaningful difference in the lives of each customer and employee, too.

Want to learn more about employee engagement? Check out this snippet video and the PFPS BrightTALK Channel!