We need meaningful work to help us perform and flourish through change. Our organizations need us to find our work meaningful to get the most out of the good times, and to buffer the bad.
Given all of that: Is meaning something that can be fostered? Or is it just . . . there?
Another reason we undertook our 2018 study was to identify the most critical workplace factors needed for employees to find their work meaningful. Understanding these drivers gives individuals and organizations a point of entry for intervention.
The first key organizational factor that emerged is feeling like you’re not in it alone. Workplace social support significantly influenced degrees of meaning. Workers who feel a greater sense of social support at work scored 47% higher on workplace meaning scales than those who did not. One of the most difficult challenges for organizations today, particularly post-COVID-19, is preserving community amid remote work, turnover, and job instability. But most of us don’t realize that part of what’s at stake is the very soul of work itself.
Another critical factor that emerged from the data was values and purpose alignment with leaders, particularly the company’s most senior leaders. Employees who feel values-aligned with their colleagues were 33% more satisfied with their jobs—not bad! Employees who feel values-aligned with their leaders, though, were a whopping 46% more satisfied. Leadership’s values matter, and not just to shareholders or board directors. They matter to the individual workers who need to follow that leader through the rapids. Shared mission statements are a decent place to start. To be most effective, however, senior leaders must live the values the company espouses.
Research by Harvard Business School professor Ethan Bernstein suggests that changes to the workplace can create an environment where all workers feel that their work is knowledge work. For example, employees perform better when given certain rights of privacy and the ability to experiment in judgment-free zones. Organizations that create these conditions can expect to drive a greater sense of meaning for their employees. Individuals benefit, both materially and psychologically, and organizations see outsized returns. Everybody wins.
Bolstering Meaning at Work: As Individuals
Call this the outside-in perspective on meaning—the organizational factors that influence how meaningful people will, on average, find their work. To arrive at those answers, we take people’s scores on meaningful work scales and see how they correlate with organizational features.
The inside-out version of this same question asks, what parts of work do people say they find most meaningful?
Two professors at the University of Canterbury, in Graeme Payne’s hometown of Christchurch, New Zealand, discovered that employees experience seven most common drivers of workplace meaning. Which of the seven best encapsulates what makes work feel meaningful to you?
Personal growth: You feel that work actively contributes to the development of your inner self.
Professional growth: You feel that work allows you to activate your full professional potential. (This was what we found knowledge workers experienced most.)
Shared purpose: You feel that you and your colleagues and your leaders are working toward a common purpose.
Service: You find meaning in acts of service for other people.
Balance: You find meaning in the work of balancing your personal and professional attitudes and priorities.
Inspiration: You feel inspired by your company’s vision and leadership.
Honesty: You hold as a core value straightforward communication and the realistic assessment of work.
Much of the work of meaning-making must happen at the individual level. Helping people understand what creates that sense of purpose for them individually is a core function of a good coach.
Increasing our sense of meaningful work can be as simple as gaining clarity on the ways we are striving to grow—in our thoughts, our relationships, our skills, our knowledge—and seeking opportunities to focus there.
One way to bolster your sense of personal growth is through regular review of your achievements. How often, at the end of the day, are you reflecting on a challenging task performed well? How about work that stretched you interpersonally—as a colleague, a friend, or a leader?
Noticing and savoring your own growth will increase your sense of purpose and satisfaction.
Excerpted with permission from TomorrowMind, Gabriella Rosen Kellerman and Martin Seligman, Nicholas Brealey Publishing/Hachette India.