Employees are a rare commodity. The skills shortage and advancing demographic change mean that companies have to work increasingly hard to retain staff. Our research has shown that this is particularly successful when employees feel that what they do has a purpose.
There is scientific evidence that ‘meaningfulness’, or considering that your actions have meaning (i.e. utility), ensures a positive attitude and well-being on an individual level.
It also benefits a company if its employees feel that their work is meaningful, as this enhances performance and ensures desirable behaviour in the workplace.
Creating an environment where we feel that our work is meaningful
If meaningfulness is so important for both employees and companies, the logical question to ask is: how can managers and companies create a working environment where employees feel that their actions have purpose and are meaningful?
Companies, and thus primarily (but not exclusively) managers, have a major impact on how meaningful employees find their daily work. Three aspects are particularly relevant: the person-job fit, the positive impact of the activities performed on others, and a feeling of community:
- People with a good person-job fit find more meaning in their work.
Do you have a knack for numbers but spend all day preparing and giving presentations? Alternatively, do you love talking to people but spend all day sitting in front of Excel sheets? Then your person-job fit is poor.
A good job fit is important to ensure that work feels meaningful. However boring the work (e.g. processing Excel sheets) may seem to outsiders, the person performing it must value the tasks and be able to use their full potential.
This is the only way that they can fully contribute to the company and put all of their qualifications and skills to use. As roles and people are continually developing, it is vital for managers to regularly review person-job fit.
- Observing one’s impact to find one’s work meaningful.
In an interview for a study, I spoke to a London-based waste disposal employee who truly identified with his work, as he understood the meaning and purpose of it. In his view, without him this huge city would be drowning in rubbish. He could see the consequences of his actions, the positive impact of his work on a daily basis, and was proud of it.
Some professions often have a quickly visible impact – such as doctors or teachers. For jobs where this impact is less clear, it is vital to discuss the particular impact and scope of the work undertaken. ‘Why am I doing this?’ is a question that is hugely important in recognising the meaningfulness of our work.
We therefore recommend to managers on ESCP’s executive programmes to take the question of meaningfulness seriously, and to adjust areas of activity in consultation with employees where relevant.
- Creating a community to strengthen meaningfulness.
Managers need to give their employees some time – specifically, time to exchange. Rather than thinking in a task-oriented way, even project teams set up for the medium term should always invest in a day or a day and a half of team building. This will enhance their sense of responsibility for the group and the task, which will pay off in the long term.
Tip: intensely emotional experiences create particularly effective bonds, so a group roller coaster ride at a theme park is in fact an excellent idea from an organisational psychology standpoint.
Warning signs that staff no longer find their work meaningful
Prevention is also key when it comes to meaningfulness. Therefore, managers need to remain attentive in their everyday work: if employees are beginning to doubt the meaning or purpose of their work, this will generally first be expressed in increasingly cynical perspectives (e.g. ‘this is off to another great start’). These are followed by negative, critical statements (‘you can never please XY anyway’), and ultimately silence.
The good news? It is never too late for managers to start a dialogue and revive meaningfulness using the aspects described above. However, the most effective approach is always to ensure that all employees are constantly aware of the meaning of their work.
This article was originally published in German by Capital.