Do you give your people enough sources of meaning?

by Bee Heller
October 5, 2017

Most companies are alive to the fact that people want to feel a sense of meaning at work. Our desire to contribute to something purposeful and bigger than ourselves is a fundamental human motivation.

According to Gallup there is a direct correlation between whether employees feel a sense of meaning at work and employee retention, positive customer experience metrics, productivity and profitability. Helping employees connect with the purpose of their organisation and find meaning in their work is arguably critical to an organisation’s success.

But in a healthy company should every employee derive their sense of meaning and purpose from the same source?

I think there are two approaches to creating meaningful organisations.

  1. The monistic approach – an organisation driven by a single ambitious purpose, which everyone is motivated to strive towards and from which everyone derives their personal sense of meaning and achievement.
  2. The pluralistic approach – where the organisation is a vehicle for more than one ambitious endeavour, where there are multiple sources of meaning and ways for employees to pursue purposeful work. This may be because the organisation has more than one overarching purpose. It may also be because it encourages employees to pursue ‘non-core’ activities like volunteering or charity work.

I don’t think either of these approaches is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ but I do think an organisation’s approach to creating meaning for their employees should change over time.

A start-up wants to attract and employ people who care deeply about what the company is trying to achieve. They want to galvanise and direct the efforts of their people around a single ambitious purpose. If they allow people to spend too much time pursuing tangential interests and creating different sources of meaning, this will slow the company down and prevent it making progress against the original purpose.

However, as a company grows I believe it becomes necessary to create more potential sources of meaning. It is unrealistic to expect a large, diverse workforce to derive the same sense of meaning and connection to the original purpose of an organisation. Having an overarching purpose is still important, but larger organisations should also provide their employees with lots of avenues to find their own sense of meaning and satisfaction at work. Whether that’s giving people opportunities to choose the projects they work on so they can select those that matter most to them, or encouraging people to take on roles that play to their strengths such as becoming a brand ambassador, charity champion or employee voice representative.

Organisations that remain monistic in their approach to creating meaning can become single-minded and tunnel-visioned. Take Uber as an example. Their win at all costs approach to shaking up the world of personal transport worked spectacularly well at the start. Their people no doubt felt an enormous sense of accomplishment in creating the first taxi company that owned no cars, that created new employment opportunities for drivers and reduced the cost of personal travel for consumers. However as Uber continues to grow, make waves and cause controversy, their monism appears to have become monolithic – characterised by rigidly fixed uniformity – and more of a risk to their long term viability.

There are a vast number of ways in which people can derive meaning from their work. Start ups that pursue too many may find themselves held back. However growing companies that pursue too few can become mono-cultural, cultish and unhealthy. Growing companies that want to tap into people’s intrinsic motivation for meaning need to grow their sources of meaning and help their employees discover and pursue what they find personally meaningful.

As with my previous blogs in this series on intrinsic motivation HR Director and blogger, Gary Cookson has written a response to this blog based on his personal experiences.

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