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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A New Poseidon Adventure: Flipping Succession Planning Upside Down

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The Hidden Costs of Ignoring Your Talent Management Strategy

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The Hidden Costs of Ignoring Your Talent Management Strategy

Building and maintaining a successful company hinges on having the right people to execute projects and drive results. People, we hear time and again, are your company's most valuable asset. But their success — and HR's ability to recruit, engage and retain them — depends on HR pros who are strategic decision-makers, armed with the proper tools to let them excel at their jobs. Modern HR professionals manage much more than payroll and benefits. But their technology tools, in many cases, haven't evolved past basic productivity software like email or Microsoft Word. HR simply can't be strategic with old-school tools that reduce people to statistics and give little insight into what the numbers mean. Emails and spreadsheets were not designed to deliver meaningful insights into people's performance, suggest when employees should be promoted or highlight skills gaps in a company. For that, HR needs a broader, more strategic set of talent management tools, which lets professionals manage every aspect of the workforce, from training and performance reviews to collaboration and succession planning. Yet, research shows that less than 25% of companies use a unified, holistic approach to their talent management. The Real Costs of "Doing Nothing" As a Talent Management Strategy The critical relationship between business strategy and HR strategy too often gets overlooked by senior leadership. While it may seem like the company is saving money by managing recruiting, training, performance and succession via manual and paper-based processes, in reality it’s costing your business more than you know. For example: Without a talent management strategy, a company with 2,000 employees is losing almost $2 million every year in preventable turnover alone. Businesses that don’t invest in learning suffer from decreased employee performance and engagement to such a degree that they can expect to realize less than half the median revenue per employee. That’s a direct impact on the business. In employee performance management, organizations without a focused strategy waste up to 34 days each year managing underperformers and realize lower net income. To learn more about the business impact of talent management and how to start building out your strategy, check out the eBook Why Your Nonexistent Talent Management Strategy is Costing You Money (And How to Fix It) and register for the March 19th webinar, Building the Business Case for Talent Management.

The Return of the Moderate Merit Budget – Wreaking Havoc on Pay for Performance

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The Return of the Moderate Merit Budget – Wreaking Havoc on Pay for Performance

With the economy now on steadier ground, most organizations have returned to administering a merit budget to the pre-recession levels of 3 to 3.5%. In the years immediately following the economic downturn, many merit budgets were eliminated entirely or were reduced significantly and reserved for a select segment of the employee population. Pay for performance has become a necessity for many organizations that are expected to accomplish more with fewer resources. I often get asked: "How can I truly award my top performers with such a limited budget? Should I do so at the expense of my ’Meets Expectations’ performers? What if I need to retain my ’Meets Expectations’ performers and giving them 0% to 2% increase puts me at great risk for turnover? But if I don’t recognize my top performers, don’t I risk losing them...?" These are difficult questions to answer, however you can determine the best solution for your organization by considering the following: Are your employees paid at market pay levels? Is your organization’s performance management process mature? Does your organization have other compensation programs in place to reward top performers (e.g. variable pay)? Market Pay If turnover is a concern, and your organization needs to maintain ’bench strength’ in order to achieve its strategic objectives, your biggest priority should be to ensure that you are paying your employees at market pay levels. Why? Historically, as the labor market strengthens, organizations become vulnerable in terms of losing people. Hiring and onboarding replacement talent is not only costly to the organization, but can also cause dissension among existing employees since new hires may be getting paid more. Be sure to stay abreast of market pay levels and trends, and use the merit budget to correct disparities. Performance Management Process Organizations vary significantly in terms of the maturity of their performance management process. Closely examine your organization’s process and look for ways to improve it. If there is a perception that one management team is an ’easier grader’ than the others, the process is inherently flawed and any pay for performance program will not be viewed as credible and fair by employees. A good place to start is to get a calibration process in place and communicate broad guidelines on expected distribution ratings. Variable Pay Programs Variable pay programs (e.g. bonuses) have become increasingly more popular across all industries and career levels. These programs provide the opportunity for employees to share in the organization’s success while not adding to fixed payroll costs. Some plans have an individual performance component which can be a very effective means to recognize top performers. However, in order for this type of program to be successful, individual goals and targets must be well documented and communicated. Again, this is largely based on the maturity of the organization’s performance management process which takes time to evolve. What are the best steps to avoid wreaking havoc on your pay for performance process? First ensure your pay levels are keeping pace with the market Continue to evolve your performance programs with calibration among managers and a rigorous goal setting process Promote variable pay plans to reward high performers without adding to fixed pay roll costs It’s not always an easy journey but, in the end, it’s best to use a measured approach that is based on business needs and a realistic assessment of your current programs and processes.

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