Want To Make Your Work More Meaningful?

Female office worker holding papers while colleagues meet in background
Female office worker holding papers while colleagues meet in background

What do you most want from your job? More money? Opportunities for a promotion? Job security? Flexibility? If you're like most people who are asked this question, chances are the number one thing you want from your work is meaning. That's right, more than money, promotions, job security or even flexibility, we want to know that what we do has purpose in the world.

Researchers have found that leaders can help make people's work more meaningful by giving them the freedom to make choices, opportunities for variety and challenge, giving regular feedback and ensuring people can see things through from start to finish. But as important as each of these factors are, studies are finding there's one that matters even more.

Want to know how you can ensure your people are experiencing meaning and purpose in their work?

The number one predictor of finding meaning in our jobs is the belief that what we do positively impacts others. The good news is that in most case our jobs do have a positive impact, however often we're too far away from the people who use our products or services to really understand how what we do benefits others.

For example, as you can imagine sitting in a call center at a university asking alumni for donations is pretty repetitive work, with very low autonomy and plenty of rude customers. As a result people don't generally stay in these roles for very long.

Assuming that employees are ultimately self-interested, most managers try to improve the callers' jobs by offering performance incentives like pay increases, promotions, and bonuses -- none of which has been found to makes the work any more enjoyable or the callers more productive. And less than 1% of managers surveyed believed that showing callers how their work makes a difference would be of any value to the employee or the outcomes being achieved.

Until, Professor Adam Grant at Wharton Business School ran an interesting series of experiments.

It turned out that just a five minute conversation with a student who had received a scholarship from some of the money raised by the university call center staff was enough to create a sense of purpose in their otherwise tedious work. After hearing how their calls could make a positive difference in someone's life, on average callers doubled the number of calls they were making and weekly revenue increasing from around $411 to $2083.

That's more than 400% just because they saw the potential positive impact for each call they were making.

Professor Grant suggests there are three basic mechanisms leaders should leverage when it comes to creating more meaningful work for the teams:

  • Show your people how their work benefits others. In some fields this is easy to achieve. For example, Medtronic's annual holiday party invites patients to share their stories about how the company's medical technologies have improved their lives. But even when a company's contribution might be less dramatic, real-life examples can also make an important difference for people. For example, Wells Fargo ask customers to describe for their bankers how a loan has helped them to buy a house or make a dream possible and Facebook shares the stories of friends and families that have been reunited with their engineers.
When was the last time your team actually heard how what they did benefitted the people you serve?
  • Share how others appreciate your people's work. We all share the same deep psychological need to be respected, valued and appreciated. When the Olive Garden shares customer's letters describing how they chose to celebrate a meaningful event at their restaurants, staff members are reminded of the value of their work. At Let Go Publications, where editors revise travel books, managers circulate letters from readers who have relied on the company's advice to explore new countries and experience new cultures.

When was the last time you shared feedback with your team about the positive impact they're efforts had for others?

  • Help your people develop a deeper understanding of your customer's problems and needs so they feel committed to helping them. For example, Microsoft have found that after meeting end users face-to-face, developers better empathize with the challenges they face and are more motivated to design software with users in mind.

When was the last time your team talked with your customers or end users and had the opportunity to ask how their work could be of better service?

Grant suggests that giving your employees a sense of meaning and purpose in their work can't just be an intellectual exercise where you as the leader describe why what they do matters. Instead, he recommends finding ways to outsource this inspiration so your people can vividly understand the impact of their work.

So what could you do to make work more meaningful for yourself and others?