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8 Powerful Approaches to Create Meaningful Employee Engagement

7. Make meaning – why work?

(Part 8 of an 11 part series on how managers can improve employee engagement)

Finding direction through meaning

Meaning. For work to sustain and enrich people it must be meaningful. Those who have a why to work can bear almost any how and a sense of meaningful work instills a strong and rich intrinsic motivation. Progress, when it is meaningful, can be one of the best events of our day.

Finding and Defining Meaning. Paul Fairlie recently published an article on meaningful work and engagement in Advances in Developing Human Resources. He listed the common dimensions of meaning: having a purpose or goal, living according to one’s values and goals, autonomy, control, challenge, achievement, competence, mastery, commitment, engagement, generativity or service to others, self-realization, growth and fulfillment. Fairlie conducted research on meaningful work with 574 respondents.  He offered six implications for human resource development practice including deeper discussion and social connections, changing mindsets, and management education on models of human meaning. He concluded that meaninful work was a unique predictor of engagement, “meaningful work characteristics are an overlooked sources of employee motivation and engagement within organizations.”

Here are 8 ways to create meaningful work:

  1. Trump how with why
  2. Build abundant leadership whys
  3. Stretch meaning, shrink money
  4. Get Pink with autonomy, mastery, purpose
  5. Master your Mojo
  6. Reframe your values as promises
  7. Lead on purpose
  8. Double your WAMI at work

Trump how with why. Viktor Frankl concluded that the meaning of life is found in every moment of living and that life never ceases to have meaning. To move this to the workplace, if you have a why to work you can bear almost any how. Not everyone is engaged in meaningful work, but maybe everyone can be.  Part of making this happen is helping organizations, leaders, managers, and employees learn how to co-create meaningful workplaces. Part of making this happen is helping workers to perceive and experience the greater purpose in their work. In the workplace, meaning is co-created between the organization and individual. It is not something we give to another person — meaning must be built through authentic conversations about the why of work.

Build  abundant leadership whys. David and Wendy Ulrich wrote They Why of Work: How Great Leaders Build Abundant Organizations that Win. The authors frame the book around some down-to-earth and meaningful questions around identity, prupose, motivation, relationships, teams, work culture, contribution, growth, learning, resilience, civility and happiness. They encourage us to ask ourselves:

  • What am I known for?
  • Where am I going?
  • Whom do I travel with?
  • How do I build a positive work environment?
  • What challenges and interest me?
  • How do I respond to disposability and change?
  • What delights me?

The Why of Work is a practical book for leaders who are looking to instill meaning. As the authors  state in their preface: “Leaders are meaning makers: they set direction that others aspire to; they help others participate in doing good work and good works; they communicate ideas and invest in practices that shape how people think, act, and feel. As organizations become an increasing part of the individual’s sense of identity and purpose, leaders play an increasing role in helping people shape the meaning of their lives.”

Stretch meaning, shrink money. Money matters but so does meaning, completion, competition and motivation to instill caring at work. Dan Ariely offered an insightful 4 minute video on work and meaning at Big Think. He outlines how motivation and engagement are created through meaning. I encourage you to watch this video. Here is a short snippet from the transcript:

Sure, we care about money and it’s nice to get paid, but there’s also a whole range of other things that we get–a need for achievement and completion, competition with other people, and a sense of progress and a sense of meaning.  And all of those things really, really matter.  But as we move to a knowledge economy that depends more on people’s good intention and willing, and as the nature of work becomes more amorphic and work kind of interweaves with life in all kinds of interesting ways, as we move more and more to that kind of workplace, I think the relative importance of money is getting smaller and the relative importance of those other things could get… could get much larger…The first lesson is that we need to recognize how important meaning, completion, competition, motivations are in getting people to care and to work hard, and we need to try to encourage those…we need to do things that don’t undercut those human motivations.

Get Pink with autonomy, mastery and purpose. Daniel Pink wrote the popular book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.  Meaning and motivation according to the research Pink gathered is created through autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Pink stated that purpose maximization is taking its place alongside profit maximization as an aspiration and a guiding principle.  We need to use profit to reach purpose, lessen the emphasis on self-interest, and help people pursue purpose on their own terms. Pink believe this may not only rejuvenate our businesses and organizations but also remake our world.

Master your Mojo. Marshall Goldsmith offers MOJO to find meaning. Mojo means working with 3 elements:

  1. Identity (Who do you think you are?)
  2. Achievement (What have you done lately?)
  3. Reputation (Who do other people think you are? What do other people think you’ve done lately?) .
The back and forth of mojo. We find professional mojo by what we bring to an activity. This includes motivation, knowledge, ability, confidence, and authenticity. Our personal mojo is developed by what the activity brings to us. This includes happiness, reward, meaning, learning, and gratitude. Watch and listen as Marshall takes 3 minutes to help us get our mojo working:

If the video does not open in this window, click here.

Reframe your values as promises. I appreciated Mike Morrison’s slim book on The Other Side of the Card: Where Your Authentic Leadership Begins. Mike was the Dean of the University of Toyota. He stated that one side of our business card has writing and the other has meaning. The meaning is created on the blank side of the card. The book offers a number of short exercises to fill the white space of our work with meaning. One element of the book that really stood out for me was to reframe values as promises. Values are often nice sounding statements that frozen in a framed wall statement while promises are something we keep. Ensure that your values don’t stagnate on the wall, think of them as promises, and then do all you can to keep the promises you make.

Lead on purpose.  Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer have done some great research and writing demonstrating how important minimizing setbacks and maximizing progress is for engaged work. In the January 2012 McKinsey Quarterly they outline how leaders kill meaning at work. This occurs by “dismissing the importance of subordinates’ work or ideas, destroying a sense of ownership by switching people off projects teams before work is finalized, shifting goals so frequently that people despair that their work will ever see the light of day, and neglecting to keep subordinates up to date on changing priorities for customers. The article includes a plea for executives to instill meaning in other and find meaning for themselves at the same time:

 you are in a better position than anyone to identify and articulate the higher purpose of what people do within your organization. Make that purpose real, support its achievement through consistent everyday actions, and you will create the meaning that motivates people toward greatness. Along the way, you may find greater meaining your own work as a leader.

Double your WAMI at  work. Michael F. Stager encourage us to fine our WAMI through a work and meaning inventory. People work for many reasons – some are obvious (I am paid to work), some are not as obvious (work is where my friends are). Research evidence and case studies testify to the reality that understanding how people approach work and what they get from it is vital to learning how to achieve the best possible outcomes for individuals and organizations. Meaningful work is a good predictor of desirable work attitudes like job satisfaction. In addition, meaningful work is a better predictor of absenteeism from work than job satisfaction.  The Work and Meaning Inventory (WAMI) assesses three core components of meaningful work: the degree to which people find their work to have significance and purpose, the contribution work makes to finding broader meaning in life, and the desire and means for one’s work to make a positive contribution to the greater good. To download the 10-item WAMI assessment and scoring key click here.

Five meaningful considerations.

  1. Create meaning rather than searching for it. Making meaning is a creative and co-creative process.
  2. Work with meaning while achieving meaningful results.
  3. Actively engage with some of the sources listed here to enhance your own meaning and help others create their meaning.
  4. Have wide eyes about your work so that you can see and experience the greater purpsse in what you do.
  5. Remind yourself that meaning is a process not an event. You don’t simply find meaning one day, you engage in meaningful work every day.

Read these 7 meaningful sources:

    • Paul Fairlie, Meaningful work, employee engagement, and other key employee outcomesImplication for Human Resource Development. Advances in Developing Human Resouces. December 2011.
    • Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning.
    • Dave Ullrich and Wendy Ulrich, The Why of Work: how Great Leaders Build Abundant Organizations That Win
    • Dan Pink, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us
    • Marshall Goldsmith, MOJO: How to get it, how to keep it, how to get it back if you lose it.
    • Mike Morrison, The Other side of the Card: Where Your Authentic leadership Begins.
    • Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer, How leaders kill meaning at work. McKinsey Quarterly, January 2012.

Next post in this series: Experience Well Being.

David Zinger built the 10 block pyramid of employee engagement to help managers bring the full power of employee engagement to their workplaces. If you would like to arrange to have this course or workshop for your organization or conference contact David today at 204 254 2130 or

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