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Helping employees find meaning at work

Schon Beechler
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While job enrichment, flexible benefits packages and other levers canhelp to engage talent, explicitly providing a link between individuals’values, what they find meaningful, and the work that they do every daycan be a powerful motivator.

The first job I ever had was working second shift in an injection-moulding plastics factory in Binghamton, New York, during the summer between my first and second years of college. I started on the simplest machine, making tiny, yellow dynamite caps and worked my way up to operating injection moulds that made plastic liners for sewer pipes, contraceptive-foam applicators and plastic cogs for sewing machines.

Each mould was operated by one person, so there was no one to talk to, except on break, but the novelty of moving from machine to machine every night was enough to keep me motivated for the first couple of weeks.

Soon, though, the foreman realisd that I was becoming bored and disengaged as the monotony and the fatigue from standing on a cement floor for eight hours began to take its toll. One afternoon he assigned me to a machine at the back of the factory that made the red-plastic lenses that are inserted in stoplights. As he was explaining how to operate the machinery, he leaned over and spoke to me in a quiet voice.

“You know, this job is really, really important,” he said. “When you do a good job, the plastic in this lens reflects the light behind it just right so that drivers can see the red signal when they pull up to the stoplight. Doing the best-quality job on this machine will help to save many people’s lives. I think you have had enough experience on the other machines that I can trust you.”

My ears pricked up and I promised him, and myself, that I would do my best work all shift long. In a brief moment he helped transform a dull, tedious and unpleasant job into something meaningful for me, giving me energy, focus and a commitment to my job that was completely lacking when all I could see was another monotonous task.

The search for meaning is universal, as neurologist, psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl in writes in “Man’s Search for Meaning” (Beacon Press, 1946). While it is a search in which we must each actively participate, the leaders in our lives play a crucial role in helping us connect or reconnect to that sense of purpose, to what is meaningful. They help fuel our desire not only to survive, but also to thrive in all aspects of our lives.

The current leadership literature is rife with suggestions about how to engage, excite and keep employees. While job enrichment, flexible benefits packages and other levers can help to engage talent, explicitly providing a link between individuals’ values, what they find meaningful, and the work that they do every day can be a powerful motivator.

Studies suggest that, when people feel that they are pursuing a profound purpose or engaging in work that is important personally, there are significant positive effects such as reductions in stress, turnover, absenteeism, dissatisfaction, cynicism and depression.

In addition, research suggests increases in commitment, happiness, satisfaction, engagement, effort, empowerment, happiness and a sense of fulfilment among those who find meaning in their work. What is important is not the nature of the work itself, but the relationship between individuals and their work.

In 2001, researchers Amy Wrzesniewski and Jane Dutton conducted a study of how people coped with what many would consider extremely distasteful jobs at a hospital in the Midwest. Interviewing Candice Philipps, a custodian who was assigned to clean up vomit and excrement in the oncology ward when people came for chemotherapy, they found that even someone with distasteful duties could find meaning in her work.

“My job is equally important to the physician,” Philipps told the researchers. “I help these people feel human. At their lowest and most vulnerable point, I help them maintain their dignity. I make it OK to feel awful, to lose control and to be unable to manage themselves. My role is crucial to the healing process.”

In Philipps’ eyes, in short, her work was not simply a job, but a calling.

Attributes of meaningfulness

In his book “ Positive Leadership” (Berrett-Koehler, 2013), Kim Cameron writes that work is associated with meaningfulness when it has one or more of the following key attributes: 1) The work has an important impact on the well-being of human beings, 2) the work is associated with an important virtue or personal value, 3) the work has an impact that extends beyond the immediate timeframe or creates a ripple effect or 4) the work builds supportive relationships or a sense of community in people.

While some people come to work for a particular organisation because it is aligned with their values, has a clear impact on the well-being of others or provides clear meaning through its long-term impact and/or supportive relationships, leaders also can help employees find meaningfulness in their work when these attributes are less obvious.

Executives I work with often become so entangled by the enormity of their positions in guiding their organisations to success that they lose sight of their role in helping their employees sustain their energy and commitment to that success by staying connected to what is meaningful in their lives.

Even in organisations that have a mission to do good in the world, leaders need to continually reconnect each person in the organisation to that mission and to provide a sense of purpose for coming to work every day.

In an era in which we get beaten down by harsh economic realities, 24/7 work demands on our time and increasing levels of stress in all areas of our lives, it is critically important that leaders find ways to help all of their employees connect or reconnect to what is important, to a purpose, to our universal search for meaning. Equally important, leaders need to reconnect with their own sense of purpose in order to continue to fuel their own inner fire.

“The meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour,” Frankl wrote. “What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment.”

Schon Beechler is a senior affiliate professor of leadership and organisational behaviour at the international

business school Insead.

© The New York Times 2013

From Insead Knowledge

© 2013 Insead

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