Creating Meaning

Daniel Pink said it…

Maslow said it…

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Even Margaret Thatcher said it…

“What is success? I think it is a mixture of having a flair for the thing that you are doing; knowing that it is not enough, that you have got to have hard work and a certain sense of purpose.”

Believing in a purpose motivates us to perform and succeed, and while some jobs may come with an easily defined purpose (think doctors), most do not. As leaders, we must help our employees find meaning in their work. But of course, the question isn’t should you, but how do you create meaning?

Here are a few basics:

  1. Money is not meaning: Money is important, it’s necessary, it relates to worth, but it is not meaning. This includes both the money you pay someone and the money you make as an organization.
  2. Missions should convey meaning: Going back to rule number one, don’t fall into the trap of making your mission about money. You know you’re headed down that path if you use phrases like stockholder value, shares, or maximize. Teresa Amabile and Steve Kramer do a great job in their Harvard Business Review blog of showing the difference between missions about money and missions with meaning.
  3. “People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it.” This includes your employees. As Simon Sinek  said, people need to understand the “why.” Every time you communicate to your employees, you need to explain the why. “We are rolling out this great new product!” – Why, what’s wrong with our existing products? “We are restructuring the organization.”  – Why is this needed? “We are giving you a promotion!” – Why, what did I do? Ok so maybe they won’t ask that last one, but answering it is still important. Understanding the why helps to drive behavior. It gives meaning to your what’s, who’s, and how’s. If you aren’t sure what your employees think, ask! To stay on top of the employee perspective, I hold regular group discussions with employees at different levels to discuss their ideas and issues, and I don’t just have an open door, I live the open door policy.
  4. Create a culture of meaning: A company’s culture (or any type of culture for that matter) is made up of the shared values and practices of the organization. You can influence your culture through the environment, the people, and the work:
    • Create an environment that reflects your values. If, for example, you value innovation, do your employees have the ability to do this, perhaps through collaborative technologies or Innovation Jams?  I recently posted a question about client interaction to my employees in an Ideation Blog to have them submit their ideas and vote on the best suggestions. This was an easy way to create an environment that encourages collaborative, meaningful discussion among our disaggregated employees. It’s important to remember that your environment is more than a physical space and tools like this can make a big difference.
    • Provide work that is meaningful, challenging, and allows for growth. In order to grow, people need new opportunities and the ability to manage their own work. They need to be responsible for their output and rewarded for their successes. One way we have done this is by systematically moving our employees to new projects after a certain time period, thereby bringing fresh perspectives to other projects while developing the individual’s skills.
    • Lead by example. If you want your employees to be dedicated to your customers, you must, in turn, be dedicated to your employees. Show your employees you are committed to their growth and helping them to achieve their goals.

Creating meaning for your employees is really about creating a successful organization. Meaning drives engagement and engagement drives results. Providing purpose starts at the top, but cannot end there. Executives must drive a meaningful mission and strategy, while managers must show the purpose to every day work. Sure, every task isn’t going to fill your employees with the sense of true accomplishment (wow, that Power Point template could save the world!), but they should always know how what they are doing plays into the bigger picture.


2 thoughts on “Creating Meaning

  1. Great content. Clarity on the overall company or team GOAL and how the invididual efforts contribute to this is KEY. People want to know that they MATTER to the BIG PICTURE. This is not hard yet few Managers do it.

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