The startling truth is that a recent Gallup poll indicates 70 percent of us are disengaged at work – checked out. That means that 7 out of 10 of you at work right now are either reading this article or playing Candy Crush on your mobile phone. Amongst those 70 percent, 20 percent are actually actively disengaged, which means they are partaking in sabotaging behaviors at work. And you probably just thought of the cross functional “partner” on your team that fits that bill.
All of this is a real dilemma for companies trying to do more with less, which is all of them. The answer to winning back the disengaged, (and keeping the engaged, engaged), isn’t pay, perks, or promotions. It’s meaning – that is, giving work a greater sense of significance, and thus, making work matter. Finding meaning in and at work produces engagement, fulfillment, and performance that sustains over the long haul – it is the motivational tour de force of our times.
Meaning is a competitive and compassionate advantage. Companies adept at fostering meaning-rich environments with higher than average employee engagement also had 27 percent higher profits, 50 percent higher sales, and 50 percent higher customer loyalty – I’d say that’s a competitive advantage. And when all is said and done, leaders that endeavor to create a truly fulfilling workplace environment for their fellow human beings are creating a compassionate advantage as well.
So how do leaders foster conditions that create meaning for others (and themselves)? Here are seven little secrets that I call the 7 Markers of Meaning:
1. Do Work That Matters
To you, to others, to your company. There are two powerful lenses through which to view your work; lenses powerful enough they can utterly reframe how you view your job and what you spend your time on. When you know you are working towards your purpose and your legacy, you can take comfort in knowing there may be no work that matters more. Our purpose is our Profound Why – why are we working so hard? For what higher order end? When we know our purpose, we know why what we do matters. Our legacy is our Profound What – what are you working on of meaning, to tangibly leave behind? What will outlast you that helped make your purpose concrete?
Taking time to reflect and ask yourself what your desired purpose and legacy might be is a vital first step. Then keep both in front of you and continually reframe your work through these lenses – it will help sustain motivation, fulfillment, and peak performance even through the toughest of times.
2. Commit to Crafting a Learning Environment
This is a must to energize and maximize personal growth. Scholars have long held that when we see ourselves learning and growing, it creates an increased sense of competence, which in turn provides a great sense of meaning in one’s work. In fact, think back to a time in your career when you were the most frustrated and unfulfilled. There’s a good chance it was during a period when you weren’t challenged, learning, and growing; when you thought “Am I wasting my time here?”
Pioneers of learning organizations say that given the blistering rate of change in many industries, the rate at which organizations learn and grow may become the only sustainable competitive advantage. It is so difficult to get out of the “do loop” and into a “learning loop,” but committing to doing so is absolutely essential to maximize the sense of meaning, motivation, and fulfillment one derives from work.
3. Be Intentional About Building Self-Esteem
This is so others feel valued and valuable. We need self-esteem building now more than ever. A recent study indicates that self-reported emotional well-being is at a record low on college campuses, a direct side effect of astonishingly low levels of self- esteem. These are our future employees. Meanwhile, back at the workplace itself, the fight to preserve self-esteem rages on.
Social psychologists Roy Baumeister and Edward Jones found that after study participants received negative feedback about certain aspects of their personality, they came to view other unrelated aspects of their personality much more positively relative to participants who had not received negative feedback. When our self-esteem is threatened, we subconsciously fight to protect it. As leaders, you have a choice to plant seeds of growth or seeds of doubt in others (and yourself). Be intentional about contributing to the former.
4. Involve the Troops in Decisions and Grant Autonomy Liberally
Opening up the decision-making process to involve employees is critical as research shows that work comes to be meaningful when individuals see themselves as capable of influencing outcomes. It’s meaningful because it tells them they are not powerless and that they have the ability to make a real difference.
Unfortunately, the desire for a sense of contribution all too often goes unmet in today’s workplace. A global workforce study by Towers Watson showed that, overall, only 39 percent of respondents agreed their organization’s management effectively involved employees in decisions that affected them. And about the same low percentage agreed their organization solicited and acted on employee’s suggestions and input. In stark contrast, among those identified as “highly engaged,” more than 66 percent agreed their organization solicited and acted on employees’ input and suggestions. The key is to not just view decision making as a process for making the call and getting employees focused on what matters; it’s a philosophy for helping employees matter more.
If involving employees in decision making is meaningful to them, then empowering them to actually make decisions will be exponentially more important. The Journal of Personality & Social Psychology reported that the number-one contributor to happiness in life is not money, popularity, good looks, or even a good sex life. It’s autonomy. It’s no different for us at work. Research clearly indicates that when employees have greater levels of autonomy, they are better able to use their personal attributes to contribute to job performance – a deeply satisfying and rewarding experience. So let go of position power and ignite personal power by granting autonomy whenever possible.
5. Create Caring and Authentic Culture
It’s important to ensure that people feel free to bring their whole self to work. Organizations built on a bedrock of caring unlock newfound levels of interconnectedness among employees, who will feel as they are part of something special. It generates a deep sense of belonging, which feeds a fundamental source of meaning and motivation for human beings. Building a core of caring into a culture also elevates morale and delivers returns for the company. Jim Goodyear, CEO of SAS, a business analytics firm that for two years in a row was recognized as Fortune magazine’s number-one company to work for in America says, “Treat employees as if they make a difference, and they will.”
Similarly, fostering an authentic work culture is critical to create meaning, fulfillment, and sustained peak performance. Authentic behavior binds human beings to one another, and is deeply satisfying for those conducting and receiving; it helps reinforce selfidentities and creates bridges to a sense of belonging. As leaders and managers, we can promote feelings of authenticity in the workplace by helping others feel at home in their jobs, by encouraging all to act and be true to themselves, and by conducting ourselves in an authentic manner as a role model.
6. Help Others See Where They Fit in the Mission and That They Matter to Achieve It
As a leader, your role in enabling and framing meaning is irrefutable. Through your conduct and communications, you help others (and yourself) find meaning in and at work.
Our leadership actions create meaning when we show our passion for others to succeed, when we emit a caring undercurrent, when we are skilled at properly framing exactly how others fit into the vital mission at hand, and when we create an atmosphere of what I call “relaxed intensity,” where the desire to win and have fun while doing it are equally evident.
In our communications, when we make people feel something and when we inspire a felt sense of confidence, we build a sense of certainty and community. It makes the difference between compliance and commitment, meaningless work and meaningful work.
7. Free the Workplace from Corrosive Behaviors That Serve as Barriers to the Best Self
All of our hard work as leaders to create meaning and deeply motivate at work is for naught if we unwittingly allow negative, meaning-draining behaviors to sneak in the backdoor.
There are four primary ways such behaviors take form: when we engage in or allow behaviors that drain a sense of certainty, a sense of completion, a sense of confidence, or a sense of community. A sense of certainty is compromised when we do or allow such things as acting without integrity, acting indecisively, or acting inconsistently. We destroy a sense of completion when we kill feelings of ownership or create rework and waste. A sense of confidence goes by the wayside when we are quick to criticize but slow to praise. And we crush a sense of community when we allow negativity or excessive internal competitiveness to persist. The key is to be aware of all of these most toxic workplace behaviors and the ways in which they destroy a sense of meaning. Then, cut off these behaviors wherever they appear – either in yourself (as tough as it may be to admit), or anyplace up, down, or across the organization.
The surprising motivational power of our times is meaning. Learn how to foster the conditions that create meaning in and at work, and you’ve unlocked a secret worth spilling.