Creating Meaning in Work Just Makes Sense

David Zinger

Founder: Employee Engagement Network

Those who have a 'why' to live, can bear with almost any 'how'. ~ Victor Frankl

Scott Berkun published the book- The Year Without Pants: and the Future of Work about his year working inside of During the conclusion of the book as he reflects upon work and his experience, he states:

"The most dangerous tradition we hold about work is that it must be serious and meaningless. We believe that we're paid money to compensate us for work not worthwhile on its own. People who are paid the most are often the most confused, for they know in their hearts how little meaning there is in what they do, for others and for themselves. While money provides status, status doesn't guarantee meaning (p. 230)."

When I constructed the 10-block eclectic and evidence-based pyramid of employee engagement, I placed the meaning block at the bottom of the pyramid as one of the four foundation blocks.

Meaning provides our foundation for work, enabling us to weather the daily trials and tribulations of our toil while connecting work to something greater than us. Work is about both cents and sense.

We All Want Meaning

Do you remember during a boring high school class asking your teacher: "why are we learning this?"

A response of "because you have to, that's why" was not satisfactory. Eventually we stopped asking about meaning.

Frequently, meaning in education and work gets pushed aside in favor of the mundane.

For example, during my 20 years teaching in the Faculty of Education at the University of Manitoba, the most common question students asked me had little to do with finding greater meaning in the curriculum. The most frequent question was, "will this be on the exam?"

What we really need to do is examine meaning more closely.

Meaning and Employee Engagement

According to Kahn and Fellows, in an article on employee engagement and meaningful work in the book, Purpose and Meaning in the Workplace, the most important ingredient for employee engagement is "the extent to which workers experience meaningfulness at work."

Working because you must is not sufficient to sustain engagement with work.

Working because you experience a sense of purpose and meaning changes work from drudgery into contribution, from depletion into accomplishment, and of course, moves disengagement to engagement.

Creating Meaning at Work

Yet, our organization cannot just give us meaning and purpose.

At best, meaning is co-created between you, the task, others at work, and the organization. Meaning can encompass a great deal of individual differences because we don't find meaning at work, we create it.

For example, if we're brick layers, we don't all have to see that we're building a cathedral to discover purpose and meaning. Some employees may need the big picture of building a cathedral while others find meaning in the zen-like flow of placing brick after brick into a wall.

Victor Frankl demonstrated through logo therapy that those who have a "why" to live, can bear any "how". Although he was talking about life and surviving very desperate times in concentration camps I believe we can take his line and insert it into the workplace with: if you have a ’why’ to work, you can bear almost any how of working.

Exercise: What's Your "Why" to Work?

This is a professional site and I am focused on helping you help others with engagement, but let's stop an outer focus for the next three minutes.

In a moment, I'm going to ask you to stop reading and sit for three minutes with a question. If you can stretch the sitting to 6 or 9 minutes that may be even more enriching for you.

By the way, before you begin this exercise, know there can be more than one answer, and there may not be one best answer.

If you want to write your responses as a list that's okay, or if you want to create a visual mind map that too is fine. If you just want to let the answers drift through your cerebral cortex, go ahead. Ready for the question?

"Why do you work?"

(Please take a couple of minutes to answer this question before reading any further)


Here are some additional questions to help you explore your responses:

Is it for the money?

To make the world a better place?

Because you believe in what you are doing?

Are you connected to your organization's products or services?

Do your answers help you engage in your work? Do they make a difference? Do they matter?

Did your answers energize you or did it feel like a meaningless three minutes?

How might your answers have to change to make work more meaningful or to have meaning as an authentic foundation for your engagement with work?

Going Deeper Into How to Create Meaning at Work

Now take the "Why do you work?" question and engage others in conversation about creating meaning in work. Use the follow up questions to go deeper into meaning.

I call this the "WD-40®" approach to meaning in work because there are so many Ws and Ds in the two acronyms it uses. It's also an effective exercise to "lubricate" meaning in the workplace when engagement with work gets rusty, stuck, or seized up. (For those of you unfamiliar with WD-40®, it's a spray lubricant that has a wide variety of uses and applications.)

The two acronyms for this approach are: WWDWWD (Why we do what we do) and WIDWID (Why I do what I do).

The first focus gets at the organization's meaning and purpose while the second gets at your own meaning and purpose.

When you look at both responses, do you have a meaningful match with your organization?

I witnessed the Ken Blanchard Group respond to the first question and it was heartwarming, purposeful, and connecting. The company created a video of various people responding to the question, and in three minutes I was left with a much better sense of the meaning behind the organization's work and the meaning that resides in the people working there.

I encourage you to create a meaningful video to share within your organization.

I conclude this foray into meaning at work with a few lines from the preface of The Why of Work by Dave and Wendy Ulrich:

Work will always be work - sometimes monotonous or routine, sometimes stressful to the max - but we believe work can still contribute more than just money to our lives."

Find your why at work as you help others work on their why.

Your turn: Why do you work? What are your organization's "whys"?

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