The world is experiencing a meaning crisis. Therefore more people are looking to find meaning from their work. We are witnessing a shift from a means-based economy to a meaning-based economy. If you can help fulfill this need, you will help your company become a better place to work and tap the enormous business potential of a purposeful workforce aligned with a purpose-driven organization.
In this article I will explore trends and research that illustrate how meaningful work environments can improve outcomes for all stakeholders. And what leaders can do to uncover this dormant source of inspiration.
Here are some interesting statistics from a survey by McKinsey & Company:
- 70% of employees said that their sense of purpose is defined by their work.
- Only 18% of respondents believed that they get as much purpose from work as they want. 62% said that while they get some purpose from work, they want to get even more.
- When employees at any level say that their purpose is fulfilled by their work, the work and life outcomes they report are anywhere from 2 to 5 times higher than those reported by their unfulfilled peers.
- These less satisfied respondents reported lower average work and life outcomes than more satisfied peers did—everything from reduced feelings of energy and life satisfaction to lower engagement, satisfaction, and excitement about work. Negative work and life outcomes for employees inevitably translate to negative outcomes for the business.
- 85% of execs and upper management said that they are living their purpose at work, only 15% of front-line managers and front-line employees agreed. Executives are nearly 8 times more likely than other employees to say that their purpose is fulfilled by work.
Quiet quitting refers to employees who are filling seats and watching the clock. They put in the minimum effort required, and they are psychologically disconnected from their employer. Although they are minimally productive, they are more likely to be stressed and burnt out than engaged workers because they feel lost and disconnected from their workplace
When asked what these “quiet quitting” employees would change about their workplace
41% cited “engagement or culture”,
28% cited “pay and benefits” and
16% cited “well-being”.
Main take out from the research
- Firstly, work is a very important source of meaning for most people.
- Secondly, there is a void. The vast majority of people are not getting enough meaning from their work and they want more.
- Thirdly, those with higher levels of meaning experience better engagement, motivation, satisfaction and improved well-being.
- Fourthly, creating meaningful engagement through culture could vastly increase commitment, productivity, and output.
- Lastly, there is clear disconnect and a gap between executives and front-line employees when it comes to living their purpose at work.
The research suggest that the reason why front-line managers and employees are much less likely than execs to rely on work for purpose are because unaware leaders may be conditioning them to feel this way. In mining the data McKinsey found that front-line managers and employees were 10 times less likely than management-level colleagues to say that they’d had opportunities to reflect on their purpose, and 9 times less likely to say that they’d had a manager foster opportunities for them to work on meaningful projects.
It turns out that leaders are doing little to share the “big picture” with front-line colleagues, who were 3 times less likely than leaders to say that they can see a connection between their daily work and the organization’s purpose.
The reality is that most of the employees at the coalface, closest to your products, services and customers are not deriving their purpose from work and are not aligned with or inspired by the values, intentions and meanings that drive the leaders of the organization. This should be concerning, yet it is exactly where the opportunity lies. If people who live their purpose or feel their purpose is aligned with the organization’s purpose are more productive, engaged, healthier, more resilient, and more likely to stay at the company, then this is a massive incentive for leaders to close the gap.
This may be a source of untapped potential and growth for many organizations, who should aspire to ensure that their employees’ purpose is fulfilled and aligned at work. Everyone stands to benefit; the employees, the organization, and the customers.
How can employers and leaders increase engagement by enabling employees to develop and live their purpose at work?
Uncovering individual and collective purpose
Why we work, determines how well we work.
Can you explain the why behind the work of your team? Organizations should have a clear sense of their purpose. This is not your product or service, but the higher order benefit your team brings. This is the answer to the questions:
What does the world ask from you? What is the impact or change that we bring? What value do we create and what does that mean to our customers?
Leaders must know, articulate, communicate and implement the higher order meaning and benefits. Then they need to help employees identify with and integrate the meaning of the team’s extrinsic goals and purpose. This fosters ownership and commitment to group goals and helps individuals see their work as a calling orientation. Purposefully engaged people are more likely to work harder and longer, perform optimally and not experience burnout.
It is vitally important to uncover your team’s purpose. This is not only setting behavioural, extrinsic or outcome goals, but uncovering the higher order meaning of the goals. By uncovering the why or higher intentions of teams, it brings meaning and purpose to their daily tasks. It provides people a reason to get up in the morning and acts as a North Star to guide and direct decisions. Employees become purposefully engaged when they know the higher order benefit they bring to their extended environment, customers or stakeholders. This occurs when individuals accept, identify, and integrate the shared purpose, goals, and meanings.
Individual purpose is of course something personal and can be described as what matters in a person’s life. What the individual values. People experience purposefulness when striving toward something significant and meaningful to them. How do you establish what your people value and what they deem significant? You ask them! This may be private and not everyone will want to share this, but what is important is to create the space where individuals can reflect on this.
While organizations and leaders can influence individual purpose of the employee, they have no control over it. Leaders can create the space for people to develop, identify and nurture their individual purpose. Then help the individual align and integrate that with the group purpose.
Figure 1. below will help explain the conceptual relationship between an individual’s purpose and their work, as depicted by the three embedded circles.
The outer circle represents purpose outside work, and this purpose is derived by the individual engaging with meaningful activities, environments and people or relationships.
The middle circle represents purpose from work. Purpose is derived here if the individual has identified with the importance and value of their work (activities and tasks). They believe the work is valuable and in support of their personal goals, outcomes, progress, development of potential and affect their purpose outside work.
The inner circle is made up of the organization’s purpose, shared values and culture. This is the only area the organization can control directly and its means of influence.
Leaders should aim to expand this sphere of influence to closely match the size of the employee’s sense of purpose from work (the middle circle). The closer this match, the more fulfilled the employee. The people who are the most alive, driven, and fulfilled are those that are dedicated to a life of contributing value to something greater than themselves. A closer match provides more opportunities for employees to seek and expect more purpose from work, and to feel more aligned with the organization’s purpose. This expansion can be facilitated in three ways:
- Crafting and establishing a corporate purpose that emphasizes the company’s role and the value its contributing to society. Then importantly they must provide employees with meaningful ways to reflect on the company’s efforts and their impact.
- Companies can increase its influence by improving the underlying health of the organization and its culture; setting the social contextual conditions of improved communication, autonomy, connectedness, value contribution, non-judgement, empathy and trust. This is brought about by compassionate leadership that provides psychological safety for employees.
- Alignment of individual and team purpose. Help people see how achieving the collective goals can facilitate the achievements of their personal desired outcomes. The more a person internalizes the reasons (why) for an action, the more the person’s extrinsically motivated actions become self-determined. In doing so you help people to see their work not as a job but as a calling.
Figure 2. below illustrates different scenarios. If an individual derives very little purpose from their work, the size of the middle circle will be smaller. By contrast, if another individual finds their work very purposeful, it will be larger.
In short, the size of the middle circle represents the portion of one’s purpose that is accessible by work—and also how much purpose people expect from their work— this will vary and it may grow or shrink. Leaders should view this middle circle as a target they aim to understand, meet, and grow.
Value contribution is optimal when we operate at our best
One of the highest human needs and drivers of motivation is the need to self-actualize, progress, and develop potential. We can help people tap into this source by developing talents, strengths, and abilities to grow as individuals into what you we capable of being. Our contributions to our environments are optimal we are operating at our best. This is living a life where we are striving for out potentials to be actualised. Martin Seligman, credited as the father of Positive Psychology, differentiates between a good life and a meaningful life. The former is where you use your character strengths to obtain achievement and gratification through activities. The latter is about using your strengths in the service of something greater than yourself. This leads to transcendence, which is the dedication and commitment to something beyond yourself. It results from creating meaning and purpose in your life and then acting in accordance with this meaning. This leads to some external usefulness of your life through intentionally living in line with your purpose. Transcending yourself for the sake of the greater good.
This framework underscores the importance of having a team ideal, a shared goal and purpose of contributing value in some way. This is the only sustainable way to recruit, unite, retain, and inspire all the people a business touches, from employees to customers. Only thing that enduringly connects the core values and beliefs of the people inside business with the fundamental human values of the people outside business.
Without that connection, no business can thrive.
What can leaders do?
Here are four actionable ideas to help leaders make better decisions and help create meaningful places of work:
1. Actions speak loader than words.
Leaders must not only confess but implement the higher order meaning of the organization. Besides having a clear sense of their purpose and values, this should be embodied in everyone’s behaviour. From reception to sales, from operations to marketing. It doesn’t matter what your professed values are, but what you are actually living. Decisions and strategic direction should follow up on the values and purpose rhetoric.
Just having inspirational mission statements on e-mail signatures and office stationery will not suffice. Leaders must act in ways that support their statements. If there is a gap between the professed purpose and what is lived and practiced in reality, the organization will have a problem. If you talk about purpose but don’t follow through, the results can be devastatingly bad. This amounts to leaders killing meaning at work.
2. Be clear on the team purpose
What is the purpose of your organization? What is your firm doing? And why?
This is not your product or service, but the higher order benefit you bring. What are your company values? And are they embodied and visible in the behaviour. This is the value you are contributing to society, and the difference you are making in people’s lives.
Does your company meaningfully consider its role in society? Bain & Company identified that products and services deliver fundamental elements of value (EOV) that address four kinds of needs: functional, emotional, life changing, and social impact. Understand and own the value you are creating then communicate and practice this on all fronts.
Put accountability measures in place:
- Routine measurement helps leaders encourage participation, identify weaknesses early, and take corrective action.
- Internal scorecards can track the commitment of leaders, employees, and other stakeholders to organizational purpose.
- Embed purpose metrics into the performance assessments of people leaders.
Another action you can take today is to start spending time with your team reflecting on the impact the company has on the world. This has to be sincere and it should be a dialogue, not a monologue. People buy into ideas when they have a sense of belonging and ownership. Authentic reflections on the bigger picture can inspire a sense of purpose.
3. Reflect on individual purpose and internalize the bigger picture
Provide employees with the time and space to reflect on their own dreams, goals and sense of purpose, and how it connects to the company’s purpose. If you make this a regular practice, good things will happen.
Leaders should lead by example: Managers must be prepared to share their own purpose with others and be vulnerable in ways they’re likely not used to in order to provide guidance, role model these skills and pass them along to others.
This is where compassionate leadership and psychological safety is critical. Cultivate a culture of empathy, trust, positive feedback, autonomy, connectedness, and non-judgment.
Internalization is the process whereby individuals take in a shared value/meaning and more fully transform the value and meaning into their own so that it will emanate from their sense of self. With increasing internalization (and its associated sense of personal commitment) come greater persistence, more positive self-perceptions, better quality of engagement and greater experienced well-being.
4. Meaning + purpose = gratification
Your starting point should be creating opportunities that help employees find more personal meaning in their day-to-day work. By setting the context to help employees experience more gratification at work, you will enable them to feel more fulfilled. And when the work is aligned with the company’s own purpose, that sense of fulfilment will ultimately benefit the company, too.
Increased meaning and purpose can:
- Inspire people to try harder and deliver higher output
- Reduce burnout and increase well-being
- Attract and retain talent
- Sustain engagement
- Create resilience
- Fuel innovation
- Drive growth
Most people spend the majority of their life at work, so creating space for the little things to become purposeful can quickly escalate into better work experiences, better work environments, and better outcomes—for everyone.
Download your copy of Creating Cultures of Engagement
Culture is the operating system of your organization. Leaders can build and maintain high-performing cultures by leading in ways that foster high engagement, commitment, persistence, and well-being. This manual is provides the framework to create the social context that will improve motivation, meaning and resilience that will impact performance, productivity, and profit.
About the author: Reinhard Korb is a Meta-coach and integrates neuroscience, neurosemantics, psychology, and lifestyle for optimal health, performance, engagement and productivity. As the founder of Keep Thriving, he has facilitated and helped organisations and individuals actualize their potential.