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Published:April 15th, 2013 11:50 EST
Meaningful Work: Why it Matters?

Meaningful Work: Why it Matters?

By Jay Forte

Making a Difference Inspires Employee Performance and Loyalty

Ask most managers what employees want from their job and they`ll most likely tell you the driving force is money. For many mangers, offering more money serves as a way to get employees to work harder, possibly even serving as that carrot to encourage them to push harder for that promotion. Money also serves as the excuse as to why an employee may choose to leave one job for another. 

But the reality is that, though money does play an important role, it doesn`t matter as much as working in a job that has a purpose, makes a difference and provides an impact. We all work better when we do meaningful work. 

Let`s put this into perspective. You work on project for a manager and you commit great time to it. When you submit it, your manager puts it in a folder and says he`ll get to it. Days go by. Weeks go by and you still have heard nothing about your work. No comments, no feedback. Then he asks for another project. Be honest: how much effort to do you put into it if you don`t know whether it will ever get used, considered or even reviewed? For many employees their thinking is something along the lines of if he never looks at it, why bother investing my time and doing a great job? 

A, B and C-level employees

This allows for the introduction of the three primary types of employees: A-level, B-level and C-level. A-level employees choose to show up to their work with the intention of bringing their best and making an impact. The Gallup Organization calls this type of employee engaged and states only 29 percent of today`s employees are engaged. The B-level employee comprises 52 percent of the workforce; they do just enough not to get fired. The final 19 percent are C-level employees. These are the employees who are actively disengaged and disinterested in their work. 

Once managers acknowledge the three types of employees, the next step in understanding each of them is learning what inspires employees to choose their level. Though there are a number of factors at play, the greatest factor creating any of the three levels relates to meaningful and purposeful work. 

Meaningful work is created by these two areas in any organization: 

  1. Job fit. Defined as the alignment of employees to jobs that requires their specific talents, strengths and passions, the right job fit enables employees to feel capable, competent and confident. They find their work meaningful because it connects to what they do best " this makes it personal.
  2. Quality of management communication. An improved quality and frequency of management communication provides employees with clarity around expectations, support, validation, feedback and development. With this understanding, employees have more of the right information to know how their job is important and meaningful. 

Humans are creatures who crave meaning. We want to matter to the people in our lives, to our work and to our society. We lost much of this during the industrial age, where what we did didn`t matter as much as how quickly or efficiently it was done. We essentially became part of the machine. When there is little or no personal connection to our work, then money becomes our driver.

However, in today`s intellectual and service workplace, the nature of work has changed. Employees are now face-to-face with customers in the service event " the work is more personal. We have the opportunity and the responsibility to show up as our true selves; our work is a representation of who we are. If we are in jobs that fit our abilities and passions, we can connect to our work. Couple this with increased and improved management interaction and communication and we see the value of our work. This inspires us to bring our A-game. Without it, we no longer feel competent, confident and interested in the work. Add to this little or no supportive communication from management and little or no context of why the job matters, and employees check out. A-level employees become B- and C-level employees. Employees change jobs and company performance suffers. 

In his 18-minute TED talk, Dan Ariely, a behavioral economist, says Contrary to conventional wisdom, it isn`t just money [that makes us work]. But it`s not exactly joy either. It seems that most of us thrive by making constant progress and feeling a sense of purpose.  

This is a similar message supported by author Daniel Pink in his book, Drive "The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us." He states that the secret to high performance and satisfaction " at work, at school and at home " is the human need to direct our own lives, to learn and create new things, and to do better by ourselves and our world. In short, autonomy, mastery and purpose are what move us to A-level performance. Meaningful work. Meaningful for the employee. Meaningful for the business. Meaningful for the customer. Meaningful for our lives. 

So how can we make work more meaningful? Two ways: improve communication and provide context.

Improve Communication

Open, clear, strategic, supportive, performance-focused communication is the power behind all performance. Though context is critical for meaning, the delivery of that information often determines its effectiveness. In our industrial age, managers prided themselves more on a command-and-control approach to work and to communication. Management had all the information; only those components that were necessary for an employee to complete his work were shared. Information was at a premium and much of the important information was limited only to the upper levels of management. Because of this, performance reviews were the source of virtually all organization/employee communication events; communication was one-sided. 

In today`s intellectual workplace, organizations need the ideas, thoughts and observations of their front line employees to be aware of the facts, and create meaningful responses to encourage innovation. Open and clear two-way communication is critical to achieving success in this type of workplace. The more management and employees personally connect, the more significant the relationships and, as a result, the better the quality of communication. Clear and open communication allows for the second component " context " to be effective. 

Provide Context

In our interconnected workplace, employees can no longer pay attention to just their small area. They must understand their role in context of other employees` roles, the organization`s goals and directions, the customer, competition, regulations and the speed of change. Without context, employees don`t fully understand their meaning or impact. Think about this as if it were a jigsaw puzzle. Each employee has a unique piece to the complete image, but has no real information about where they fit, how they impact others and what the puzzle will look like when completed. They have their little piece and nothing more - they cannot connect meaning to their small piece. This disengages the A-level performer. 

However, when you marry clear communication channels throughout the organization with sharing meaningful information, the employee gains insight into the larger picture. When this information is added to their working in their talent areas, they can be intentional in connecting their strengths to areas needed by the organization. They challenge existing things; they invent new ones. They show up more engaged, focused and committed. 

Why It Matters

We all want to feel that we matter " that what we do has meaning. In this intellectual age, the quest for meaning in life has manifested itself in the workplace. As we self-discover more, we find that there is no longer a work me and a home me. Instead, there is only a true me.  We are happiest and most committed when the true me shows up in a job that fits, clear about its impact, purpose and meaning. 

It`s a wake-up call for managers everywhere. If managers take away an employee`s sense of fit and job context, managers will quickly discover that the only way to meet monthly performance targets is to bribe with bonuses. 

But, if employees are aware of their talents, strengths and passions, and managers learn how to effectively align them to meaningful work, it significantly increases the positive sense of self. Couple this with improved communication by today`s management to provide context about the work and employees see the larger picture and see their value. They commit to greater loyalty and performance.  

Jay Forte, a former financial executive and corporate educator, now business and motivation speaker, workplace and life coach, and author, is a nationally ranked Thought Leader and President of The Greatness Zone. Jay guides organizations " their leaders and managers " in how to attract, hire and retain today`s best talent. He coaches individuals in how to reconnect to their talents and passions to achieve personal and professional greatness. 

Jay is the author of Fire Up! Your Employees and Smoke Your Competition and The Greatness Zone - Know Yourself, Find Your Fit, Transform The World. The Greatness Zone tools, programs, books, resources and coaching can be found at TheGreatnessZone.com and FireUpYourEmployees.com.