There was a time when people looked for job security, for the right remuneration package and the career ladder. However what people want now is meaning and significance in their work. When we talk about employee engagement or employee satisfaction is what we’re interested in them showing up and completing some tasks and feeling OK about it? Or do we want them to show up, fully present, committed to the company’s mission, vision, and values?
Numerous studies have shown that when an individual has a personal connection to the organisations purpose their productivity, motivation, creativity and resilience increase. It’s also worth noting that absenteeism, sickness, and stress are significantly reduced.
Victor Frankl, a psychotherapist and Holocaust survivor, found that those that survived did so because there was meaning for them. Meaning to their life, meaning beyond the ditch they were currently digging. That those who let go of life lost meaning first.
We all have commonly acknowledged needs, love, recognition, security, we also want to experience growth and be of service. It is in having all of these met that we feel fulfillment.
What Does This Mean For Leaders?
As a leader, we first have to find this within our self and then we are challenged to help others find this within themselves. It’s no longer a case of providing, care-taking or parental leadership. Employees should feel responsible and accountable for their own life and career. However, as a leader, we need to guide and sponsor them in finding their answers and their path.
As a leader the challenge is to help those around you connect to the vision, to understand their values and to find their voice?
Authentic leadership is about “empowering” others to step up and lead. In the 21st century organisations of empowered leaders will be far more successful than those leaders focused on power, authority and their title.
Authentic leadership and creating a workplace that’s infused with meaning and fulfillment gives a level of shareholder value that you just can’t buy. If someone has a job and things go wrong on the production line, they may stay late if there’s overtime. If someone has a career and things go wrong on the production line, they may reflect on what caused the problem. If someone has a purpose and meaning and things go wrong on the production line, they will stay late whether or not there is overtime, they will look for causes and they’ll look for solutions to ensure the problem won’t happen again.
Sources of Meaning for Employees
What is meaning? – There are many definitions, a sense of significance, the purpose of an act, the interpretation of some intention. However, the common aspect is that we experience the sensation of meaning when we can connect our thoughts, actions or values with something else in such a way that it creates a personal sense of relevance.
As we can see for something to have meaning or to be meaningful it’s a personal connection and connectedness that’s established. We cannot then find a one size fits all approach for the workplace. In fact, this is something that we can only facilitate our staff when they are ready to make the connection themselves.
Here are several ways someone can find meaning in their work:-
- Meaning through rewards and work/life balance
- Relationships and a sense of belonging
- DNA, Values, History
- Clarity of impact
- Growth and Personal Development
Meaning through rewards and work/life balance
Whilst we often say money is rarely a motivator it can be important if it allows you do something that fuels your passion, for example, this could be a hobby or it could be your children’s education.
This aspect of meaning is achieved through balance, the inputs are equal to the outputs and the outputs (rewards) are desired by that person, for some this reward is financial, for others it’s job security, others its recognition or awards. What has shifted in the workplace is the length of time between the input and the output.
This gap is closing, people are seeking the reward earlier, it’s not about working hard for a promotion and reward that may come in 2 – 5 years down the line as jobs and roles are shifting so much faster, this reward may not be there. We also have a Generation X/Y dimension. Those born after 1980 are seeking instant gratification from their efforts.
Work-life balance is still one of the most talked about issues in the workplace. If your work has meaning then it is much more a part of your life. If your work is just something you do and you derive your sense of meaning outside of work then you will see a definite split between work and life. The conversation will be about work or life, work or play, ease or struggle, commitment or sacrifice, work or family.
Relationships and a sense of belonging
An organisation going through significant change, or where uncertainty and market demands can fluctuate can experience a weakening of human bonds and relationships. This can be through constant restructuring, internal completion around jobs (especially if there has been a round of job losses) or because the focus has shifted to the task and process rather than the person doing the task.
Some people will find a way of bonding together, others look to band together around a common cause, others are more free-spirited and look for mini parties with those they experience a connection with, however, they don’t expect the parties to last.
However people choose to find their sense of belonging, it’s important the organisation doesn’t become so focused on outputs, processes, and systems and the people are seen as the executioner of these. This can be mitigated by establishing a level of trust at all levels. Then irrespective of the market changes and the consequence of this there is an internal resilience within the organisation that can handle this without the loss of relationships.
If people know the ‘why’ and they buy into it then they can work through tough times in a way that would otherwise be unthinkable. The company’s purpose, its reason for existing shouldn’t be a few nice words hung on the wall. Some companies aren’t clear why they exist and of course, this means they blow with the wind and are moved by the storms. If the company purpose doesn’t invigorate an individual is there a site purpose or a line purpose.
These ‘smaller’ purposes should be connected to the overall purpose, it’s just that for some people the overall purpose is too large or far away for them to see and connect with. When some people stand on the shore they look at the waves lapping the sand, others look at the swell and vast body of water and others look at the horizon and notice the tiny speck of a supertanker. If you know someone’s focus and frame of reference you can help them connect to a purpose and a why that is meaningful.
DNA, Values, History
A sense of continuity and history is a powerful way of creating meaning and one that is so often overlooked and undervalued. The more you understand the core of an organisation the more you can connect the current goals and actions to that core. Again it stops work feeling like some random serious of events or flavour of the month fad.
The founder of Jus-Rol had a dream, what’s the 21st-century flavour of that dream. Do people know of this or is there an assumption that it’s obvious, or is it no longer valued. People are staunchly proud of their heritage, I’m from Yorkshire, I’m from Scotland. The heritage of a business is the same. Just as if you ignored the DNA of a human being and kept changing things without regard you’d eventually kill the human, an organisation is no different. Look at all the companies and brands that have fallen by the wayside because the DNA, the core of the brand was ignored in favour of some quick sales win. What’s the history of the brand and the site that can be tapped in to? What are the core values that connect to the DNA and yet work for the business now and into the future?
What others think of the organisation we work for is important to us. There is a sense of pride in mentioning a brand with which we have a positive experience. We see the brand as a reflection or extension of ourselves. I wear Armani, I wear George from Asda. I drive a Fiat, I drive a Ferrari. I buy Tesco own label, I buy Heinz baked beans.
Employees have a deep sense of how their sector of the business or the company as a whole is perceived. It could be a brand, it could be the collection of brands, it could be the company overall or some will have a connection to the field as a whole e.g. Food Manufacturing or FMCG.
When you’re at a dinner party or down the pub, if your company, site or brand is mentioned do you have an internal glow and sense of pride or do you shuffle your feet and look at the floor. Do you sing its praises, or refute any criticism, or do you chuck the hand grenade in first before anyone else can?
Clarity of impact
This is about helping the individual undertake actions and tasks that make a contribution. Being busy and under pressure and delivering results and outcomes that make a difference is one thing. However many people feel overworked and that their time is spent on pointless activities or activities that in the scheme of things will be lost, diluted or prove futile as the needs of the business demand the next thing.
If you are constantly firefighting or there are constant flux and change without an overall goal then the level of connection to work drops. Also in multi functional teams, the impact of one person’s actions can have unforeseen consequences for another. These can lead to silo mentality or micromanagement. However the clearer you can be around accountability and responsibility and the better you are at delegation the more clarity of impact you’ll provide – or you’ll quickly find out that you’re asking people to perform irrelevant tasks.
Growth and Personal Development
People accessing their unique strengths tend to feel they are living more meaningful lives and as a consequence, their levels of happiness, motivation, and health are higher. However, some appraisal schemes are set up to pinpoint weaknesses only and then work on reducing them next year. No human being grows and develops as an ever-expanding circle we tend to grow in a more spiky fashion. We will develop our logic or our emotions, or our character over our competence.
We also unconsciously encourage others to grow and develop in areas that we’ve found led to our success. If we have qualifications in science we may see those in art as less valuable. We may prefer a collegial approach to learning were others respond to hands on. If you can help someone connect to their strengths and to find their unique gift to their work you witness someone light up like a Christmas tree. From that point on they can see where they need to develop, which areas they should capitalise on and which areas are holding them back. Now of course when they seek to reduce or mitigate a weakness there is a context for this and an internal commitment and desire to do so.
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