Finding meaning at work – how leaders can shape meaning at work


Have you ever wondered to yourself what is the meaning of it all? What am I doing at work? Is what I’m doing worth it?

If you have, I bet you’re normal – just like the majority of people out there. It is however a great question to explore and I believe this question is a key question that all organisations need to ask themselves. The leaders at all levels of organisations need to ask themselves this question and ask how they can infuse greater meaning for their people because if we find our work meaningful, we will be immensely motivated and much happier at work. This translates to greater productivity, creativity, discretionary effort and performance improvement leading to greater organisational success.

In the 1960s, United States and The Soviet Union were on a race to see who could put the first man on the moon and send him back. President Kennedy issued a bold vision for The United States to put a man on the moon before the end of the decade. There was this story about a cleaner who worked at NASA back in 1962, cleaning toilets. One day, when President Kennedy was making a visit at NASA, he walked into the men’s toilet. The toilet was spick and span and had a nice floral aroma – the President was impressed. He saw the cleaner at a corner and asked him what he was doing. The cleaner replied “I’m helping to put a man on the moon.” That cleaner found motivation in his work! He found a larger purpose and meaning to his work beyond cleaning of the office facilities.

I know a lady by the name of Jane and she works in the office as a program executive, helping to process applications for students enrolling for courses at a school. I asked her ” What motivates you at work?” She replied “Nothing really. It’s just a 9 to 5 job for me. I do my work and collect my pay at the end of the month”. Later, I asked Jo, another lady the same question and she said to me “I help open doors to greater opportunities for students through education”. Jo found greater meaning in her work even though both were doing the same kind of work.

Creating a motivated workforce

In order to create a motivated workforce or a motivated team, leaders need to focus on helping employees find meaning in what they do at work. Why is this important? Meaning at work is a key source of motivation for us. All of us want our work to mean something – it elevates us and inspires us to give our best. Leaders are meaning makers and as meaning makers, frame how things and work is interpreted such that  it is focused on abundance and opportunity instead of deficit and scarcity. There are 7 areas leaders can work on to infuse greater meaning at work for employees. These ideas are also expounded in greater detail in Dave and Wendy Ulrich’s book “The Why of Work.”

1. Helping people identify their strengths (Abundance focus)

Help people find what they are good in. Everybody has different strengths. Some can relate well to others while some are good as analyzing facts and figures. Identify these strengths in each of them and help them use more of these in the work they do. Useful tools that can be used are Buckingham’s Strengths Finder tool and Martin Seligman’s Signature Strength tool.

2. Find out what they value

Find what your team members value and you find out what motivates them. At work, I have found these 6 grouping of values to be helpful. They are based on the research done by Eduard Springer in Types of Men(1962) and G.W. Allport in The Study of Values (1960):

Theoretical : Wanting to find solutions, using facts and data, and learning and sharing knowledge

Utilitarian: Wanting things to be practical, useful, productive and financially sound; keeping score perhaps with money or points

Individualistic: Wanting to be part of leadership decision making, striving for world class and being seen as the best

Social: Wanting to benefit and help others, putting others’ needs above one’s own, solving people problems

Traditional: Wanting rituals or guidance in how to work or live in best possible way, having operations or traditions to pass down

Aesthetic: Wanting things to be artistic, creative, strive for harmony and balance and peace.

Find out the top 3 motivators for each team member and align work as much as possible to honor each person’s top value. For example, if Mary is high in Theoretical value, get her to be a coach or hold sharing sessions with other team members to share her knowledge. If Ken is high in Individualistic and competent, put him in charge of a project.

3. Build people to people relationships

Build strong relationship among work colleagues. In an intact team, have a session with the team to come up with team norms, which are behaviors that we will hold each other accountable for. For example, a norm could be “We deliver our work on time” or “We will highlight difficulties or challenges we face and ask for help if required”. Create opportunities to bond together as colleagues and as a team. Play a game of badminton or tennis together. Go for lunch or dinner together every now and then. Get to know each other personally outside of work. Know each person as a person, not just as a colleague. Help to encourage building of friendship. If we have friends at the workplace, the workplace would be so much more enjoyable and meaningful!

4. Build a positive work environment

There are many things leaders can do to foster a positive work environment. These are the critical elements:

  • Setting goals and plans – give everyone a sense of direction, what to achieve and build plans to achieve them
  • Holding people accountable for their actions and deliverables
  • Open communication – leader has to be open and share his inner thoughts and be vulnerable in order to encourage staff to open up. Share information with everyone so that they’re updated on what’s happening
  • Show that you care for them – this is the heart of leadership. You can show you care through your actions and your communications with them.
  • Deal with conflict – manage it and confront it and find a way forward. Don’t ignore it.

5. Engage each person on work challenges that they value

This is about engaging each employee on work that aligns as much as possible with what they value. Find out from them what are their top work value motivators. Find out where they prefer to work (in the office or remote), when they work (flexibility in work schedule) and how they work (does it provide visibility, autonomy, growth) and where possible try to satisfy these needs.

6. Shape employee thinking with regards to Growth, Learning and Resilience

Build employee’s ability to respond to change and build a mindset of continuous improvement. Change is the only constant today and leaders should build the capacity of people to continuously learn and improve themselves and the organisation. Help people build up resilience to change by fostering an environment of learning, openness and supporting people through change.

7. Incorporate fun in the workplace

Infuse a sense of fun and humor in the workplace. Encourage playfulness and humor in workteams – when we enjoy ourselves, it contributes to our well being at the workplace. Ask people to share their hobbies, their favourite activities or organize social activities for people to have fun. Nobody enjoys working in a work environment where everyone is serious all the time. Fun is a very human need that helps create meaningful workplaces.


One thought on “Finding meaning at work – how leaders can shape meaning at work

  1. Pingback: Finding meaning at work – how leaders can shape meaning at work | Live as though heaven is on earth

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