March 2024 | 

Creating Meaning at Work: Five Approaches to Consider

Less than one-third of the global workforce reports itself as engaged at work, according to the latest Gallup Engagement Survey. That statistic comes as a harsh reality check for most business leaders, who are dealing with the true costs of disengagement, including lower productivity, less safe workplaces, and higher absentee rates. Another recent study finds that a 10,000-person best-practices organization can lose more than $16 million each year through turnover caused by a lack of engagement.

Greg Shea, a senior fellow of the Wharton Center for Leadership and Change Management, says even when the benefits of engagement are clear, many managers either have no idea what to do to improve it or they make superficial attempts that fail, and then they give up. “The most common strategies for improving engagement, which often fall short, include providing incentives, feedback, and recognition. I wouldn’t argue against those approaches, but the problem of engagement remains. There is another, less frequently used, factor that can influence engagement and that has no upfront cost to the employer: meaning. Meaning is the sense of purpose and significance that people derive from their work, and it can have a profound impact on employees’ well-being, creativity, and loyalty,” he says.

Shea cites a favorite story illustrating the power of meaning that took place a year after President Kennedy announced his goal of putting a man on the moon. When touring NASA for the first time, Kennedy met a custodian carrying a broom and asked him what he did for NASA. The custodian replied that he was “helping to put a man on the moon.” He knew when he’d done his work well and he also understood its shared purpose.

“Whether it’s putting a person on the moon, making sure your kids can go to college, or curing a patient, finding meaning in your work requires making a connection between your effort and some desired result,” explains Shea. “It’s clear that people don’t always work just for the money. They derive satisfaction, and even delight, from completing certain tasks and meeting objectives. That level of satisfaction increases when the work advances a larger goal.” The co-author of Leading Successful Change and academic director of Wharton Executive Education’s Leading Organizational Change program has identified four specific leadership actions critical for helping employees make that connection:

  1. Enable work. “Do what needs doing in order to facilitate people getting their job done. You can’t begin to foster meaning without this critical first step,” says Shea.
  2. Communicate a clear mission and vision for broader purpose. “Is the mission stated in concrete language that people actually connect with? Many companies have mystery statements rather than mission statements,” says Shea. Warby Parker’s mission, “To offer designer eyewear at a revolutionary price, while leading the way for socially-conscious businesses,” makes it easy for every employee at every level to connect their work to what the company is in business to do. Compare that with the disgraced former energy company Enron’s vague (and clearly disregarded), “Respect, integrity, communication and excellence.”
  3. Translate the mission into a personal reality. “If the mission is to concentrate on quality, you need to see an emphasis on quality across the organization. It’s not just about manufacturing, but about service too. People need to understand that their work aligns with the mission and has a larger purpose,” Shea says.
  4. Free people up to contribute. Shea says another way to create meaning is to show employees that if they come up with a new product or service, or an easier, faster, or better way of doing something, they will be heard. “You need systems in place for surfacing and advancing ideas. People benefit from knowing that what they have learned from performing their job matters. They benefit even further from seeing that they will be acknowledged and rewarded when they make an extra effort to come up with an improvement, apply their ingenuity, or otherwise demonstrate deeper engagement. There must be many cues that reinforce the idea that if you think you can do it better, we want to hear about it,” he explains.
    That is what has put 3M near the top of the list of the world’s most innovative companies for decades. “3M has systems in place to surface ideas from throughout the organization, in addition to its financial commitment to standard R&D,” says Shea. “You might ask how much innovation can happen around the manufacturing of adhesives, but it’s those innovation-enabling systems that drive into the organization the belief that whatever you do is a potential source of innovation. And employees who understand that their employer values their contribution, at whatever level, can find increased meaning in their work.”
  5. Cultivate relationships based on trust. A deep cynicism toward employers has grown over the last 50 years. In that time, employees have seen or become aware of companies rewarding senior executives at astronomical rates while decimating or ending pension funds and other benefits and making deep cuts in their workforce. Loyalty, that basic indicator of shared commitment and engagement, has plummeted in value and, predictably, employees withhold it.
    “Most supervisors have to overcome a significant amount of distrust to begin to help people derive meaning from their work. That effort has to include making sure when you say something, people are inclined to believe it,” Shea explains. “That doesn’t mean you should break trust with those higher up than you, but you can be transparent about what you can and can’t discuss. You can talk about the direction you're going in, and provide updates and share to the best of your ability what that means for the organization and its employees. You can do the work of translating mission intent into local reality, and vice versa. The more transparent and honest you are, and the better you connect work and larger purpose, up and down the organization, the better the work relationships and the more likely your employees are to be engaged.”