Need to Boost Engagement? Focus on Purpose and Meaningful Work

Meaningful work increases attitudes like job satisfaction and enjoyment, commitment to the organization, engagement, and intrinsic motivation.

Today’s employees are hungering for purpose and meaningful work in record numbers. Given that we spend nearly one-third of our lives at work, it’s no surprise that people view it as a significant component in their quest for a sense of purpose in life. McKinsey found that 70 percent of people define their purpose through work, and half of US employees are reconsidering the work they want to do because of the pandemic. Gartner found half of respondents questioning the purpose of their day-to-day job and 65 percent rethinking “the place that work should have in my life.”

 The pandemic accelerated the focus on employee engagement and its connection to purpose. Ten years ago, Gallup released its first report, driving a global conversation about engagement and why it matters. The data on employee engagement is robust: engaged employees are unquestionably more satisfied and productive, stay longer, and even act as brand ambassadors. Further, disengaged employees do a lot of damage because their cynicism and poor performance can impact coworkers and customers.

Engagement is an outcome or effect, not the cause. A sense of purpose or meaning at work is the real driver, fostering engagement, which drives the outcomes (productivity, retention, etc.) that leaders crave.

We spent the last decade shining a light on engagement and asking people how they feel at work and what leads them to give more than is expected for their role. When lockdowns hit, people had even more time to reflect on what matters as they faced their mortality and the grief of loss. It’s no wonder that purpose has moved to the forefront.

How to Create Meaningful Work

Gallup has recently turned their attention to well-being and measures thriving and engagement. They argue that well-being includes the following five elements:

  • Meaningful work/career well-being: Liking what you do each day and being motivated to achieve your goals
  • Physical well-being: Having good health and enough energy to get things done daily
  • Social well-being: Having supportive relationships and love in your life
  • Financial well-being: Earning a living wage and managing your economic life to reduce stress and increase security
  • Community well-being: Liking where you live, feeling safe, and having pride in your community

Several studies show that meaningful work improves the well-being of people and organizations. Meaningful work increases attitudes like job satisfaction and enjoyment, commitment to the organization, engagement, and intrinsic motivation. Behaviors change when we have meaningful work, including lowered levels of absenteeism and intention to quit. Absenteeism alone costs about $1,685 per employee per year. Significant work also boosts performance across various measures, including customer satisfaction, knowledge sharing, creativity, and organizational citizenship behavior.

Researchers find four main factors that comprise meaningful work. Consider how you can boost these through training in your organization.

  • Job design includes the variety of assigned tasks, autonomy, working at one’s edge to develop potential, and perceived significance (as opposed to being pointless).
  • Several studies find that when we enjoy working with our colleagues, it contributes to our sense of meaningful work. Work can also create a powerful sense of belonging.
  • Leaders and managers play a significant role in creating or undermining a sense of meaning that people find in their work. Leaders need to inspire employees toward a shared vision and engage in frequent and transparent communication that builds rapport and trust—more on managers below.
  • Finally, we have the organizational level, where work is done to benefit the greater good through a self-transcendent or purpose-driven orientation.

5 Strategies to Create Great Managers

Investing in manager training is critical to your success. Employees’ experience of your organization’s purpose, leadership, and culture lives in their manager’s daily words and actions. But many managers are underperforming. A study found that 57 percent of workers quit a job because of a poor manager, and one in four dreads going to work. Most employees (84 percent) say poorly trained managers create unnecessary stress, and 50 percent feel their performance would improve if their boss received the proper training. Here are five strategies to develop your managers into great leaders.

  1. Pick the right people to lead others: Organizations often promote top performers into manager roles. Gallup estimates that only 1 in 10 people have the talent to manage others and, worse effectively, organizations select the wrong candidate 82 percent of the time! They warn, “Bad managers cost businesses billions of dollars yearly, and having too many of them can bring down a company.” Instead, focus on the people who know how to create the conditions for others to thrive.
  2. Offer manager training early and regularly: Give managers the skills and tools they need to succeed. At a minimum, training should include coaching, emotional intelligence, project management, and how to create psychologically safe and inclusive environments. The best programs also focus on creating a sense of purpose and how to revitalize purpose and meaningful work. Manager training more than pays for itself in increased productivity, employee engagement, and retention.
  3. Measure manager impact and create accountability: Track key metrics like engagement, thriving, turnover, and productivity, and hold managers accountable for these markers of team success, not just their productivity. Many people can become great leaders with the proper training and support. But if someone cannot step up to the plate, don’t hesitate to move them back to a nonsupervisory role. Recognize and reward your managers who are doing well.
  4. Remove abusive and toxic managers immediately: Leading others is a privilege, and if managers engage in any abuse, harassment, or bullying, they should be removed from the role immediately. Researchers estimate that 20 to 30 percent of managers engage in toxic behavior. You already have evidence of your organization’s problematic managers in your engagement data, filed complaints, and exit surveys. Every day, you leave a toxic manager in place, undermining your credibility and eroding your employees’ trust.
  5. Create two paths to excellence: Making management the only path to promotions and wage increases is a mistake. Not everyone is suited to lead others, so if you create another route, for example, “master craftsperson,” you can reward top performers with more advanced projects without putting them in a role that does more harm than good.

As you consider your organization’s future, understand there is no going back to the “before times.” We live through a global transformation that has shifted what we value, how we want to work, and the good we wish to create. The organizations that meet this moment will be the ones that thrive well into the future.

Britt Andreatta
Dr. Britt Andreatta is an internationally recognized thought leader who uses her background in leadership, neuroscience, psychology, and education to create science-based solutions for today’s workplace challenges. Britt is the CEO of Brain Aware Training and former CLO for (LinkedIn Learning). She has over 10 million views worldwide of her online courses and she regularly consults with organizations on leadership development and learning strategy. Britt is the author of several best-selling books on the brain science of success including Wired to Grow, Wired to Resist, Wired to Connect, and Wired to Become. In 2022, she was named a Top 10 Influencer in Learning, and in 2021, she was a Top 20 Learning Influencer and a Top 20 HR Influencer for Leadership Development.