Most people spend the majority of their waking hours at work, and research has made it clear: Employees who see their work as meaningful exert more effort and get better results. When work is a place of shared meaning, employees invest in seeing something great come to fruition. Contribution is no longer about being “on the clock”—it’s about focusing on what matters.
If work is represented as only a paycheck, time spent beyond contracted hours is viewed as a theft. Employees are unlikely to spend off-the-clock hours thinking constructively about work. When people find work personally meaningful, however, time invested is not about advancing a career. Instead, it’s about growing into the kind of person you want to be.
Meaningful work can blur the lines between the job and leisure time. When the mind is “off the clock” and engaged with less pressing matters, a welcome “eureka moment” around a sticky issue at work often presents itself. Work doesn’t require that you ignore important needs that rob you of a whole life.
Many companies want to take advantage of the work-as-meaning phenomenon, but the right approach is essential. If companies allow a small group of people to define meaning for the organization, it’s an exercise in futility. Meaning doesn’t work that way. Expecting employees to get excited about a “pre-defined meaning” becomes another demand to conform to the culture.
What people find meaningful is influenced by family, community, friends, teachers, experience, and education. It’s personal. Our experiences and unique values are not only conceptual, they’re literally wired into our neurons. Employees choose career paths, at least in part, based on a belief that work will enable them to fulfill their potential—not just as an employee but as a person. That belief can’t be replaced with an off-the-shelf model from the C-suite.
Even if the employee’s and organization’s ideas of meaning match, employee commitment and effort will be affected only if the work itself serves the individual’s notion of meaning.
How can organizations create an environment where meaningful experiences are common among employees? The answer is found in language.
Infusing Meaning into Work-Life Integration
Bijoy Goswami, an entrepreneurial philosopher, established a model that identifies four domains of human existence. He calls this model the Human Fugue, and each has its own language. The first three domains are:
Phenomena: How things get done. This might include research and development, technical skills or, in a hospital, clinical care.
Rights: Governance, policies, and procedures
Resources: Accounting, investment, procurement
Because we use each domain every day, often at the same time, they can become enmeshed and confused. They become like a tangle of necklaces—no one can see where one begins and another one ends. Separating the strands brings into view the domains to which a business issue belongs, and helps establish clarity.
Meaning is the fourth, and often overlooked, Human Fugue domain. Corporate culture typically lacks language to describe how meaning drives employee performance. It often uses marketing language to “sell” employees on something that has been created outside a personal narrative. Meaning must be specifically defined by where it resides—in people’s hearts and minds. For example, you can’t pay workers to find work meaningful, because that exists independently.
The language of meaning is different from the other three domains. Words such as “freedom,” “innovation,” or “customer care” are highly symbolic and run deep into one’s history and sense of self. An organization that tries to define meaning for others is disconnected from an individual’s sense of meaning. That’s why it’s crucial to invite employees to share what they find meaningful about their skill set, their career choice, the organization, and the work in which they’re engaged.
Having this dialogue helps employees perceive how they’re manifesting what is meaningful to them through the work they do. It can inspire a whole new level of performance.
The conversation must be ongoing. Each person shares his or her own meaning with the team or organization. Often, employees’ meaning models will resonate with each other. Suddenly, they can examine how they’re fulfilling their own meaning in their jobs, and use collaboration to help their co-workers fulfill what they believe is meaningful.
Understanding what’s deeply and personally meaningful to the people around you—priorities such as making customers happy, meeting deadlines, or devising efficient ways of working—become about helping people live more meaningful lives. That powerfully raises the level of effort people are willing to put forth. Moreover, it’s fulfilling in a way that makes work feel less like a departure from one’s personal True North and more like a means of helping individuals have the meaningful life they seek.
Danny Gutknecht is CEO and co-founder of Pathways, an advisory firm that helps organizations tap their potential through its people strategies. He works with individuals and businesses all over the world. His book, “Meaning at Work—And Its Hidden Language” (Aviri Publishing, April 2017), describes a process that supports organizational meaning making. Learn more at essencemining.com or pathways.io.