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HBR Conversation • by Dave and Wendy Ulrich
We like to ask random people in airports and elevators what they like about their job. Answers vary from “the challenge” to “the people” to “Are you kidding? I hate my job.” A few of the people giving these answers make big bucks in big companies and others sweep up after the people who make the big bucks, but neither position nor salary seem to have much to do with finding meaning in work.
Even in horrible work settings that are degrading and dangerous, some people thrive. This doesn’t mean they are happy about their circumstances, but it does suggest they manage to find meaning despite them. “Finding meaning” is probably a misnomer, however. Meaning is not a dropped coin we pick up by chance. It is more like fine pottery we craft. People have to create the meaning of their work and their lives, and that process requires skill and practice, not just luck.
Those who succeed at creating meaning — either on their own or with the help of their boss — tend to work harder, more creatively, and with more tenacity, giving the companies that employ them a leg up in the marketplace. What’s more, study after study suggests that when employees experience meaning, their employers enjoy higher rates of customer commitment and investor interest. Considering how much meaning can contribute to building a sustainable and competitive organization, it’s important for leaders to understand what makes an employee experience meaningful and what role they can play in this process.
Even in unfavorable circumstances, people can experience an activity as meaningful when it resonates with chosen values, connects them with people they like, raises their sense of competence, or gives them an “ah-ha” moment of insight. From what we know about how the human brain works, the ability to create meaning is also enhanced by challenge (solving a problem that is not too hard or too easy), emotional safety (fostered by friendship, fairness, and self-esteem), autonomy (structure but not micromanagement), and, perhaps most importantly, learning from experienced meaning-makers. In other words, we learn to create meaning like we learn most things — from watching and listening to others who do it well.
Enter the Leader. Leaders who help shape a vision that is engaging to others, who weave the stories that help people make sense of the past and imagine the future, and who tap into the unique desires and values of individuals engage people’s hearts as well as their heads and hands.
So how can leaders more systematically help employees find meaning at work? We culled research from diverse fields of thought and identified seven drivers of meaning that leaders can leverage in the following ways:
1. Help employees identify and creatively use the strengths, traits, and values (like integrity, leadership, love of learning, kindness, etc.) with which they most identify. Two useful tools for doing so are the Buckingham Strengthsfinder or the VIA Survey of Character Strengths.
2. Match the purposes (insight, achievement, connection, or empowerment) that motivate employees to the jobs they do. For example, ask employees to spend 20 minutes writing about what work would look like if all their aspirations came true. Then help them build individual development plans to pursue those dreams.
3. Foster friendships and key relationship-building skills — like making and receiving bids and apologizing effectively — to create high-performing, high-relating teams.
4. Promote positive work environments through attention to characteristics like humility, selflessness, order, and openness. Survey employees on how well your organization exemplifies these crucial qualities; then develop a plan to improve where the results indicate the company falls short.
5. Help people identify and work at the types of challenges that line up with their personal experience of engagement or flow.
6. Build in time for both individual and corporate-level self-reflection to help people discover lessons from setbacks and develop the resilience to get in front of the pace of change.
7. Encourage civility and delight from little things that personalize and civilize the world of work (e.g. time to chat, friendly competitions, pictures, and humor). Nokia, for instance, distributed thousands of plastic bracelets that employees wore to remind them not to complain for 21 days.
To paraphrase Nietzsche, “He who has a why to work can bear with almost any how.” To get the most from their employees, leaders should do all they can to make this “why” clear.
Dave Ulrich is a professor at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan and partner at the RBL Group. Wendy Ulrich is a practicing psychologist and founder of the Sixteen Stones Center for Growth, located in Alpine, Utah. Their book The Why of Work: How Great Leaders Build Abundant Organizations that Win is available from McGraw Hill this month.