We find meaning (or meaningfulness) in things that make emotional connections and are remembered, and thus matter. 1 When we feel a sense of belongingness or a sense that we are cared for, for example, it’s meaningful. We also find meaning in things that make us feel significant, that help us reach our full potential, that help us make sense of things, and that serve who we are and what’s most important to us.
It is critical to note that, as organizational experts Michael Pratt (Boston College) and Blake Ashforth (Arizona State) have discerned, meaning can be derived in and at work. 2 As human beings we can find significance and fulfillment in the work itself depending on the impact it has on who and what is important to us and its congruence with who we are. When we find a significant “to do” in our work, feel we are making a real impact on business results and positively affecting the lives of others, are doing work consistent with our values and beliefs, and are able to invest in our betterment every day, it matters. It helps us make sense of ourselves and why we do what we do. It helps answer the soul-searching questions, “Why Am I Here?”, “Who Am I?”, and “What’s the Point?” 3
In this way, we find meaning in work.
As humans, we also long for connection to others and an environment that feels like a community, a place where we belong. When we feel a great sense of belongingness at work, feel we can express our true, best selves at work every day, and feel a tremendous sense of connectedness and harmony with our co-workers, leaders, and organization, it matters. It helps us make sense of the surrounding environment and our place within it. This also helps answer the question “Who Am I?” as well as “Where Do I Belong?” 4
In this way, we find meaning at work.
1 Holtaway, J., The Meaningful Workplace (May 30, 2012) from Gary Hamels emotive thinking blog.
2 Pratt, Michael G., & Ashforth, Blake E., Fostering Meaningfulness in Working and at Work (2003), in K.S. Cameron, J.E. Dutton & R.E. Quinn (Eds.), Positive Organizational Scholarship (pp. 309-327). Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.
3 Pratt, Michael G., & Ashforth, Blake E., Ibid.
4 Pratt, Michael G., & Ashforth, Blake E., Ibid.
What does the broad workforce think of the concept of meaning?
Some might view it as a transcendent state of being that can only happen for the enlightened few, like secluded monks high atop a snowy mountain peak. Some might suspect it will just reveal itself someday if it was meant to be discovered, like some mild mannered reporter by day who suddenly discovers he has a supernatural power he must use for the good of all. Some assume they can never find meaning in their work due to the nature of their job. Still others have concluded that finding a deep sense of significance in their work is not how it’s supposed to be; work is work and that’s that. Fulfillment and happiness come from places outside of work, goes the reasoning.
And yet some of us have indeed managed to find true meaning and a sense of significance in our work.
So where does the general sentiment lie within these two opposite poles of skepticism and discovery?
As it turns out, the former is quite clearly the miniscule minority – the vast majority are on a journey of trying to discover meaning, overtly or even subconsciously.
In fact, 70% of us are on a greater search for meaning at work then in life! 5
So yes, it is truly relevant for the workplace.
In fact, alarming statistics on the crisis of disengagement in the workplace underscore the extreme relevancy. Gallup found that 71% of American workers can be coded as either “not engaged” or “actively disengaged” in their work, meaning they are emotionally disconnected from their workplaces and are less likely to be productive. 6 “Actively disengaged” can even mean the workers are going so far as to undermine their workplace environment with negative attitudes and behaviors that amount to sabotage; we’ve probably all run into at least one of these people.
This means that far too many have effectively quit and stayed. They’ve given up on the hope of finding the meaning and fulfillment in their work that they so desperately crave.
The truth is that the crisis of disengagement and cry for meaning in the workplace is more common place than any of us could have imagined. There may be no topic more critically relevant for the workplace than the facilitation of meaning.
5 Holbeche, L., & Springett, N., In Search of Meaning at Work (2004), Roffey Park Institute.
6 Blacksmith, N., & Harter, J., Majority of American Workers Not Engaged in Their Jobs (October 28, 2011), Gallup.
As managers we try many motivational tactics. More money, bigger titles, better surroundings, perks galore. But the truth is that they don’t sustain; what we are doing today simply isn’t working. Evidence of this lay in the rampant rate of disengagement in the workplace today – many studies highlight disengagement is at an all-time high with over 70% coded as disengaged!
Meaning is the motivational, performance enhancing tool of our times. The fact is that facilitating meaning not only drives employees to engage, but it takes them beyond engagement to elevated performance and true fulfillment. This is critical because many things can capture an employee’s time, attention, and engagement, temporarily. Meaning holds the engagement at the deepest, most fulfilling level, and it does so in a fashion that sustains over the long haul, constantly flowing back into a virtuous cycle of deeper engagement, more meaning, deeper fulfillment, and ever escalating performance.
I call this phenomenon profound performance.
It’s the depth and duration of engagement and fulfillment that accompanies the height of the associated performance that makes it profound. It is an absolute competitive advantage in the market for those managers and manufacturers that can create it.
So meaning matters.
And it is the inspiring end-goal for those managers that want to make work matter.
Meaning is absolutely attainable and gets unearthed in many fashions. Perhaps someone is struggling to get by in their work world and they stumble upon a specific task or role that makes their heart sing. Others may unexpectedly discover great joy in blossoming friendships or increasing connectivity with people they like at work that may share common goals or circumstances. For others it may come when they are humming along, operating on an implied assumption that things are just fine, and they suddenly experience a development that is incredibly enriching and surprisingly satisfying for them. It calls into question what they thought was significant and a source of true happiness at work. They weren’t knowingly looking for meaning, but it found them. And for others still, a major life event may quickly call into question what has significance in their life and what doesn’t, with various aspects of work falling subject to study under an entirely new microscope.
And these are just the happenstance ways in which meaning can enter our work lives. The book Make It Matter is filled with proven ways in which the well-meaning manager can very intentionally craft, well, meaning.
We find meaning (or meaningfulness) in things that make emotional connections and are remembered, and thus matter. 7 There are several end states in which we find meaning:
- We find meaning when we feel we belong, are cared for, and can be our authentic selves, and when we feel valued and valuable, worthy and worthwhile.
- We find meaning when we are engaged in things that make us feel significant, that are worthy of our time spent on them, and that assure us we matter.
- We find meaning when we are engaged in activities that maximize our learning and growth and that help us reach our fullest potential, and when we are free from behaviors that create barriers to this end.
- We find meaning when we can make sense of things – how everything fits together and what our role in it all is; when we understand where we are heading and why we are doing what we are.
- We find meaning when we are serving who we truly are and what’s most important to us.
Triggers exist to create all of these end states called Markers of Meaning. These Markers are conditions that create meaning in and at work, and they are the organizing centerpiece for the book Make It Matter.
7 Holtaway, J., The Meaningful Workplace (May 30, 2012) from Gary Hamels emotive thinking blog.
One of the most powerful things we can do as a manager is to help facilitate the discovery of meaning in the work lives of those we work with. Markers of Meaning exist – specific conditions that create meaning in and at work. Your employees may need you to facilitate these conditions so that they can unlock meaning in their work and workplace. Given the fact that the levels of disengagement in the workplace are at all-time highs, it will be welcome help indeed.
Unfortunately, it’s all too easy to engage in behaviors that actually drain instead of drive meaning at work. Research shows that managers can unwittingly kill meaning in four primary ways. I call these manners the Components of Corrosion:
- Destroying a Sense of Certainty
- Destroying a Sense of Completion
- Destroying a Sense of Confidence
- Destroying a Sense of Community
It is vital that as managers we are not only aware of our behaviors that can trigger the Components of Corrosion, but that we are diligent in avoiding them altogether. The book Make It Matter shows exactly what behaviors are meaning-destructing and how to cut them off before they are enacted.
Research has shown there are common threads or characteristics of those leaders that are particularly adept at meaning-making. These four characteristics are:
- They have a passion for bringing out the potential of everyone/everything around them.
- They emit a caring undercurrent.
- They are adept at framing up their communications to help shape and mold meaning.
- They work hard and want to win, but have fun while doing so.
The book Make It Matter fleshes out these characteristics and introduces the reader to other mechanisms the leader has at his/her disposal for maximizing meaning-making.
There are a lot of winning cultures. But research shows that cultures specifically built on a foundation of caring, authenticity, and teamwork are the most ripe for the facilitation of meaning. The book Make It Matter goes in-depth on such a culture, termed a “culture of consequence”, and provides a great deal of insight, advice, and tools to help the manager create such a meaning-rich ecosystem.
Legacy and purpose are mutually supportive, yet unique in the role they play in unlocking the best performance, meaning, and sense of deep fulfillment. Purpose is the Profound Why of our work – Why do we work so hard? For what higher-order end? Legacy is the Profound What – What are you working on of meaning to tangibly leave behind? What will outlast you that helped make your purpose concrete? If purpose gives you a sense of direction like the North Star, legacy guides your activity and course taken along the way, like a lighthouse that steers you and keeps you off the rocks.
Identifying your Purpose can serve as the initial step in identifying and articulating the Legacy you want to leave. The book Make It Matter offers step-by-step methods for identifying and articulating both your Purpose and your desired Legacy at work.