Can Leaders Give Employees Meaning at Work? 3 key ways leaders can make a difference…

NewmeasuresEmployee Engagement, Leadership0 Comments

It’s no secret that Millennials are having a major impact on how organizations attract talent, structure work, and retain top employees. One of the most commonly mentioned characteristics of Millennials is that they seek meaning in their work. And I don’t disagree; in fact, meaning and purpose are important for any employee.

Take the example of my husband. He worked as a book salesman for 8 years with a well-respected non-profit organization that used an innovative way of teaching children reading and critical thinking skills. A noble cause indeed! However, although he was really good at it, he wasn’t engaged – he felt a lack of challenge and little passion for his daily work. He stayed because he was successful, it was convenient and he didn’t know what else he wanted to do.

With an employee like this, what is a leader to do? Can you create meaning for an employee that is not excited about his or her work? Should you care about “passion” as long as the employee is performing?
This is a tough question and why I think it is so difficult for leaders to respond to the call for creating meaning at work. In Roman Krznaric’s (The School of Life/PicadorUSA, 2013), How to Find Fulfilling Work, he identifies five dimensions of meaning:

Earning money
Achieving status
Making a difference
Following your passions (interests)
Using your talents (skills)

All five of these dimensions are very personal and depend on the perspective of the individual employee. How much money is the right amount of money depends on the employee’s life style and expectations. Achieving status is a form of pride for the work one does, but can be defined in many ways (I have a title, I am respected as an expert, I have worked here since the beginning). Making a difference is personal too – my husband was helping children gain critical skills, but it was not fulfilling to him. Following passions and using talents require that employees first know what their talents and passions are, and second, that they follow a path to align their career to leverage them.

Given the personal nature of finding meaning, leaders need to focus on what they can control and influence. There are three key areas in which leaders can make a difference in building a team with employees who are passionate about their work:

Hire People with Values that are Aligned with the Work. In other words, when selecting a new employee, consideration should be given to whether the employee finds excitement in the work, what makes him or her fulfilled and will he or she have the opportunity to use their genius (the things that they are best at)? Be upfront about the good, the bad, and the ugly of a role so people can decide for themselves if it is a good fit.

Help Employees Understand the Big Picture. Make sure employees understand the impact of their work on other team members, the department, the organization, and customers. Help them think through what happens if they do their work well or if they make mistakes. Knowing that other people rely on them can help build a sense of pride and ownership for great work.

Manage Performance. Many employees go through the motions of work, but are not fully engaged in what they are doing. While they might be performing just fine, the problem is their ho-hum attitude can wear off on others and take pride away from employees that do care. Ask employees if they feel like they are getting to use their strengths and look for ways to match them with roles that are aligned with what they do best. Most often, the things we are best at are the things we like to do the most.

Going back to the story of my husband, he eventually left his job as a book salesman and went to “beer school” (yes, there is such a thing), to learn how to be a professional brewer. He has been a master brewer for the last 8 years and approaches each day as a personal challenge to make great craft beer that people love. For my husband, his passion comes from using his hands, being creative and seeing people enjoy something he made. Looking back on it, there is nothing his supervisor could have done to help him find passion for selling books. Meaning is personal, it can be hard to find, and it makes all the difference in the world.

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