It’s communication. That’s how leaders can help their employees to find their meaning.
From Dan Marlin of West Africa: I’ve got a somewhat philosophical question about the nature of work. What can leaders do to make their employees feel that their work has meaning? And why is it important for people to feel that they’re engaged with meaningful work? I’ve heard lots of perspectives on this topic… but would love to hear yours.
This is a wonderful question because it provides an opportunity for me to also talk about something I believe ranks right at the top of the list of key leadership qualities. First and foremost, let’s be clear — no one can “make” anyone feel anything. However, there are ways for company leadership to facilitate a sense of meaning and purpose for their employees.
Let’s talk about what constitutes “meaning” for workers—is it contributing to the improvement of communities? Is it having a positive impact on coworkers and the company? Bottom line: there are many ways to define meaning, and it’s important for every person, working or not, to have clarity about what has meaning for them.
There are some uniform characteristics of meaning, though; a study led by Professor Catherine Bailey from University of Sussex illuminates some of the way employees identify meaning in their work. Interestingly, though probably a side note, while effective leadership was rarely pointed to in finding meaning, poor leadership was frequently connected to a loss of meaningfulness. 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. The net answer: the chief way that employees are able to discover meaning in their work is to reflect on their work, their contribution in the company and their impact on their respective lives.
So let’s go back to the beginning: the leadership quality I mentioned. It’s communication. That’s how leaders can help their employees to find their meaning. Here are some suggestions for these conversations and communications:
- Make sure to frequently discuss the meaning of the organization. It’s absolutely critical that employees understand the purpose of the organization, along with its positive impact on both the business and greater communities. They need to be clear about the company’s goals, plans for the future, overall values and vision—all of the things that paint a picture of the organization’s mission. In late 2015, Deloitte conducted a survey with nearly 7,700 millennials from 29 countries, and discovered that a whopping 56% of respondents had ruled out working for a company or organization because of a lack of fit in values. Another interesting data point—70% felt that their personal values were congruent with their companies. Open and authentic discussions about these key topics help to avoid the disconnect that occurs when an organization is “talking the talk,” but not “walking the walk.”
- Give employees clarity about their personal contribution to organizational meaning. People need to see their work as part of a bigger picture and to understand how their work contributes to that big picture. Every manager should be able to explain how every role in their organization impacts the greater organization, and how each role contributes to the overall company mission. Sometimes this means diving into the weeds to show how day-to-day tasks, many of which are repetitive, push the company mission forward. This might be a tedious process, but it is important for employees to truly understand how their work impacts the good of the company.
- Provide vision to employees about the cultural and community meaning and value of their work. A sense of meaningfulness also is driven by the human factor; that is, understanding and connecting with people who benefit from the company’s work and by having positive and open relationships with their fellow workers. Again, communication is key—leaders need to find ways to help their employees feel connected to those who are impacted by the company’s products or services, so they understand clearly who it is that they are helping. There are many ways to make this happen—it might be through creating specific feedback forums so employees can learn about and feel connected to their company’s customers while also connecting with their fellow employees. It’s almost like creating a community in which conversation and sharing are paramount and encouraged.
Meaningfulness often is hard to pin down; there’s not much in the way of metrics to measure it. However, if leaders focus on communicating the company’s mission, and the employee’s place in the success of that mission, they can have a significant impact on the overall level of fulfillment of their employees.
David K. Williams is a Chairman, CEO and C-Level Leadership Coach in Sandy, Utah, and author of “The 7 Non-Negotiables of Winning: Tying Soft Traits to Hard Results,” available here.