Two Dimensions of Meaning at Work
What you do matters. For many years, we used this as our tagline for our firm, and while our tagline has changed, the sentiment remains strong for me. The feeling each of us gets when we are contributing at work, being seen, and making a difference is essential to our humanity and our sense of well-being
Meaning is increasingly named by job seekers as one of the things they hope for the most when they look for an organization to join, and it is one of the things people name out loud when they love their jobs.
“I love being part of something that matters.”
“I completely stand behind our products, and it makes it easy to sell.”
“I know that what we do provides an elegant and affordable solution to people. That feels good.”
“What I do here matters, and I never lose sight of that fact.”
Every level of employee, from front-line to CEO, craves being able to contribute to something bigger than themselves, and to feel that what they do matters. Upon further study, I notice two aspects of meaning that are the most important to employees in any work environment.
Firstly: Can I get behind, and do I believe in, the mission my company has or the products/services they provide?
When I was an early professional, my colleagues and I looked for benefits packages, security, and promotion opportunities first in our job searches, and if the job was for a “good cause” it was a bonus! Times have changed, and the currencies for employees have profoundly shifted. A 2015 Fast Company story stated that “more than 50% of Millennial aged workers say they would take a pay cut to find work that matches their values, while 90% want to “use their good. “Increasingly, the element of meaning in job match relates to the mission and impact of the organization itself.
Having a higher order purpose, a contribution to the world, be it social, environmental, or simply producing an innovative product that makes lives better, draws employees who connect to that purpose and keeps them there longer. Whether it is Starbuck’s “inspiring and nurturing the human spirit, one person, one cup, and one neighborhood at a time,” Nike’s mission of “bringing inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world,” or the Rocky Mountain Institute’s Vision of a world “verdant, thriving, and secure for all, for ever” feeling good about why your employer exists matters to us more and more.
Secondly: Is the impact from my day-to-day work important to someone, or something, greater than the task (or drudgery) itself?
We know from Abraham Maslow’s original hierarchy of needs in the 1940’s that belongingness and contributing to something that matters are basic human needs. Present day researcher Dr. Brene´ Brown says “we are hard wired for belonging and when these needs are not met, we don’t function as we are meant to. We break, we fall apart, we numb, we ache, we hurt, we get sick.”
In every job role, in every company held by any human being, a connection to work that is seen, and makes a difference, is important. No matter how entry-level the work, we simply do better when we feel as if the effort we are making makes a difference to someone. Sometimes, it can be as simple as a supervisor who notices the extra effort we put in, or a CEO who gives us accountability and room to innovate. I will always remember the boss who showed me at age 15 what a difference a fresh, hot cup of coffee made to the customers who came to our Café early on work mornings. And at age 19 I had a supervisor for my janitorial job who conveyed clearly to me the importance of cleaning hospital rooms thoroughly and well so that people did not get more ill from their hospital stay than when they came in. I felt, in both those instances, a clear contribution to something, or someone, to whom my efforts made a difference.
So, for employees, I encourage you to ask yourself these questions if you are feeling discontent at work:
- Do you feel that you can contribute at work in a meaningful way?
- Do you feel fully engaged and believe that what you do matters?
- Do you believe the mission of the company and/or the products are things you can support?
And for employers, I encourage you to consider the context of each of the jobs in your company, and make sure you translate this context to employees. Why does what they do matter, exactly, and to whom? Helping each person who works for you to find meaning in their role and a personal connection to doing something that matters, will increase their engagement, satisfy their basic human needs, and bring forth their best work.