(6 minute read)

Meaning matters to an organization and its people

We’ve said it once, we will say it again. Despite what far too many business leaders seem to think, salary and perk are not the determining factor for employee happiness and a healthy culture. While there are several dimensions that go into creating an ideal work environment (trust, feeling valued, safety),  one aspect that is far too often neglected but can have a serious impact on the engagement of employees is the ability to spend their hours engaged in meaningful work.

Of course compensation and benefits matter. Drastically underpaying your people compared to their peers is a bad look. Many employees who leave do so to get away from poor leadership, but in addition to these well-publicized factors, leaders should be taking a look at the way employees’ job satisfaction is tied to a pursuit of meaning in the workplace. San Francisco based leadership research company BetterUp Labs conducted research of career professionals and the findings revealed this quest for meaning quite starkly:

  • 9/10 of would sacrifice $21,000 a year for work that is meaningful
  • Those who considered their work “very meaningful” voluntarily averaged an extra hour of work per week
  • They also took 2 days less of leave annually
  • Those who considered work “highly meaningful were 69% less likely to quit and average 7.4 months longer with their companies. [1]

Meaning creates an environment that develops engaged and loyal employees, but the problem is that meaning is too rare a commodity in many organizations. The average employee surveyed said their work was about 50% as meaningful as it should be. Why is this the case and what does it even mean for work to have meaning?

Fundamentally meaningful work could be defined as work that truly makes a difference and has an impact on people, the community, and society. Where things get a little bit more complicated is with employees' personal interpretations of that definition. Every individual finds meaning and interprets meaning through their own personal lens. By applying some structure to the construct of meaning is possible. There are 3 core components that create meaningful work. 

Control over the job

It may seem like common sense, but people do NOT like to be micromanaged. Employees desire the ability to make an important contribution to the mission of the organization, on their own terms. Organizations that give employees the autonomy to accomplish their goals with their unique style create an environment that empowers them to create their own unique version of meaning.

Feedback is the avenue by which employees gain understanding of their place in an organization and its mission. Meaningful work, as a motivator, is primarily intrinsic. Employees can’t simply be told they are doing meaningful work, they need to believe it of their own accord. Feedback allows management to provide this intrinsic reward through recognition of everything from goals to innovative approaches to problem solving. As they remove the pressure to always be right and promote innovation, employees can see their growth, accomplishments, and recognize how their role and contribution are making a meaningful impact on the organization.

Communication of purpose

At the end of the day, most organizations have a mission that creates a real impact for some group of people. The problem is often that their employees have no real connection to the mission. An example of this could be a company that provides clean water filters to impoverished communities. However the experience of this mission is very different for the employee installing the filters in the community, and the quality control worker in the manufacturing facility. It is vital for organizations to provide their employees with clear communication, as well as experiences, that help them to see the impact of their role on the organization and its mission. 

Practical steps to building meaning 

Knowing what meaning is only solves half a problem. There are practical ways to drive a culture and work environment that allows employees to thrive and find meaning. Here a a few to start with:

Practice Acknowledgement

One of the most basic ways to develop a sense of meaning is to recognize teams for the effort and work they put in. A special effort should be made to connect recognition with the purpose behind the achievement. Consider the difference in the following:

“We want to recognize Rick for selling a new company record 3000 units this month.”

“We want to recognize Rick for providing clean water to 3000 families this month, an all time high for the company.”

These two statements are recognizing the same achievement, but they couldn't be more different. Recognition matters, with 70% of employees indicating that they would feel a massive spike in motivation and morale if they were appreciated more by their managers. [2] Combining regular recognition with a clear tie to organizational purpose is a fantastic first step toward creating a sense of meaning. 

Avoid the red tape

No matter how awesome a job is, there are always elements of it that aren’t fun. While some of these tasks are certainly necessary, sometimes they begin to take over more of an employee's time than they should. Monotony and other tasks that feel menial can result in employees checking out and disengaging from the project and ultimately the organization. Another pitfall to avoid is unnecessary complexity. It can be extremely frustrating to employees if they have to navigate a bureaucratic jungle to get their work done. While getting an extra set of eyes on things is important, too many double checks and sign-offs required can make employees feel that their input doesn’t matter, and separate them from a sense of meaning. And it will benefit the bottom line as well. The more an organization can reduce the amount of time spent on low value tasks and red tape, the higher the output per each dollar invested into their teams.

Employees should experience:

  • Task autonomy
  • Emphasis on the larger goal behind tasks
  • Clear path to approval
  • Low percentage of low value tasks
  • Majority of time spent at their highest value output

Create Opportunities

As mentioned earlier, not every role in an organization can be client facing. There are roles that are heavily involved with delivering the product or service to the customer, and there are employees behind the scenes who rarely see that side of the business. However, it is vital to a long term sense of meaning to keep employees at all levels connected to the pulse of organizational mission. This is especially vital in an increasingly remote workforce that can have a tendency to create employees on islands, grinding away at tasks and goals while lacking the daily connection on site workers may have.

This doesn’t necessarily mean a company needs to give every employee facetime with their customers. There are many channels that can be created to share feedback and customer stories that will remind employees of the WHY behind their daily tasks.  An example could be creating a Slack channel where a customer story is posted each week, demonstrating the impact the organization had on their lives. Another idea could be sharing customer feedback organization wide instead of just with the team most closely connected to that account. A company could also bring in clients for town hall style meetings to share feedback with employees and put a face to the work they have been doing. 

There are countless ways to get employees connected to the mission, the goal is to get creative. 

When we think of meaning, we think of the why behind the organizations we interact with. As they grow and add employees and complexity, there is some risk of getting disconnected from that mission. If a healthy culture is a priority (and it should be) then ensuring employees have a strong sense of meaning is vital. For more info or to chat about meaning and culture, just head to www.ledgestone.com/contact. We would love to learn more about your organization and mission.