For decades, there has been discussion and research about how we humans come pre-wired from the factory with a fundamental desire to find the meaning in our experiences and lives. In fact, many leading thinkers refer to humans as “meaning making machines.”
In recent years, there has also been a good deal written (including by me) about how meaningful work is more important to employees than any other aspect of work (pay, benefits, promotions, etc.) and drives significantly improved performance, commitment and satisfaction.
Since this truly is a fundamental human drive and creates such benefits, it begs the question – how can we help employees find more meaning in their work?
Where This Started
To learn more about the origins of this idea, I reread Viktor Frankl’s classic 1946 book Man’s Search for Meaning. In the book, Frankl was the first to propose the theory that the primary motivator for humans is to find meaning in life. He describes many harrowing situations he encountered in his years in German concentration camps and the ways he was able to find meaning and even joy in the grimmest of circumstances.
In 1972, Frankl spoke to a group of young people about this drive for purpose and meaning.
Dr. Frankl was clearly an extraordinary man and his ability to maintain a positive outlook through tough situations is remarkable. And, his findings are as relevant today as they were after World War II.
Why, Why, Why
In more recent years, the fundamental desire for meaning has been borne out by the immense popularity of Simon Sinek’s TED talk and book entitled Start with Why. To date, the TED talk is the third-most popular of all time with more than 40 million views, and the book has been a best seller for nearly 10 years.
In his work, Sinek dramatically conveys how companies and their employees thrive when they are inspired by a clear “why” – a shared purpose, cause or belief. He highlights how a shared purpose or belief not only creates real competitive differentiation, but also generates passionate employees.
Clearly, Sinek’s work has struck a chord and tapped into this shared thirst for meaning.
Connecting Employees to Meaning
Given the universality of this drive and the huge business benefits it can deliver, how can we help employees or colleagues find more meaning in their work? Here are some ideas we’ve seen deliver great benefits.
1) Merchandise your meaning
Once you have your “why” developed, embed reminders of your organization’s driving ideals prominently in your facilities.
Recently, Fathom helped Foodshare – a nonprofit working to lead a community response to hunger – uncover their purpose and values, and also declare these ideals dramatically in their facility. From the moment you walk into their lobby to when you enter their warehouse, you are reminded of the importance of their work and the impact delivered.
In the same way, when you walk into Kaman’s (a global aerospace and industrial distribution leader) corporate headquarters, you see a series of posters celebrating employees from across the enterprise who exemplify their corporate values.
These reminders prime the pump of meaning for employees and visitors several times per day.
2) Help make the meaning personal
While having a clear organizational “why” is crucial, recent research from MIT shows that where employees find meaning is quite personal and this process works best when reinforced individually.
To help engage employees in the meaning of their jobs, we’ve seen many companies shift away from the tradition of conducting formal annual performance reviews and move toward more regular updates and performance conversations. These conversations present a golden opportunity to ask employees about where they find meaning in their work and to help connect their individual contributions to the purpose or meaning of the overall organization.
Similarly, we’ve seen organizations incorporate their “why” into team meetings, encouraging their employees to recognize and share stories of their colleagues living the organizational purpose or values. The nature of noticing and telling these stories regularly helps employees internalize how these ideals have meaning to them.
3) Support an aligned cause
Finally, many organizations find causes to support that align with their organizational purpose. When these causes include volunteer opportunities, employees find great meaning in giving back and viscerally make the connection that the place they work does good in the world.
For example, Blum Shapiro, a leading business advisory and accounting firm in New England, does a lot to support and encourage their team to volunteer as teachers with Junior Achievement. Giving young accountants and advisors the opportunity to teach school kids about financial literacy is a natural fit and connects directly to what the firm does to support its clients and communities. Seeing the impact of their teaching with these kids gives immediate feedback of meaning in a way that daily work sometimes can’t.
Fueling the Meaning-Making
Since all employees are humans, and all humans are driven to find the meaning in their lives, anything you can do to regularly connect them to the meaning in their work can be incredibly valuable. If you can make the purpose and values of your organization palpable to your employees, and present for them personally, you will be providing them with essential and sustainable fuel.
What have you seen that’s connected employees to more meaning and how has it impacted your business?
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