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Unexpected Ways Leaders Can Foster Meaningful Work

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Everyone works to make a living. And especially in the current times of uncertainty and rapid change, an adequate compensation and benefits package is nothing to sneeze at.

Yet when you assess employee engagement, you might find that money isn’t enough to keep team members fully motivated. People will work for 90,000 hours on average over their lives. On some level, they will want to spend that time doing something from which they derive enjoyment and fulfillment.

Opportunities to do meaningful work aren’t equally distributed. Some are luckier than others in this regard.

Entrepreneurs have the freedom to align their business with their passions and values. Healthcare workers witness their efforts make a difference in the lives of others. Those in leadership get to make impactful decisions and help develop people.

But what of those whose jobs seem to offer none of those attributes? Can a leader make a difference in this aspect with workers in any role?

The mechanics of meaning


Research shows that meaningful work is vital enough for 90% of workers to leave money on the table in exchange for an upgrade in this area. But simply being aware of this statistic does little to help the manager seeking to retain their best talent.

Often, when an individual’s pursuit of more fulfilling work encounters a dead end, they will jump ship. The job market is democratized and globalized now. It’s easier than ever to find a better offer, and the more talented the person, the more the power shifts into their hands.

If you want to elevate your counter-offer, you need to have a good grasp of what imparts meaning to work or detracts from it.

A study by MIT SMR across diverse occupations found that meaningful work has certain consistent attributes, but leadership interventions weren’t among them.

Those attributes include self-transcendence or the sense that what you do matters to others beyond yourself. The work must also have a rich depth of experience, or poignancy, instead of just one-note positivity. Such experiences need to be episodic, and the workers should be afforded time to reflect on them.

Above all, the meaning people derive from work is highly personal. It always arises within the context of their overall life experiences.

Management only enters the equation in the negative sense. Workers found it easy to identify moments when leadership actions destroyed meaningfulness or made them question why they were bothering to do a task.

Upholding hygiene

This mechanism bears similarities to the two-factor theory of motivation. This model holds that job factors can be grouped according to whether they affect satisfaction or dissatisfaction, which are considered distinct qualities rather than opposites.

Motivators are the factors that increase or decrease satisfaction. Those correspond to the identified attributes of meaning.

On the other hand, hygiene factors only affect the level of dissatisfaction. When you take care of these aspects of a job, people feel no dissatisfaction. Neglect them, and they will begin to feel unhappy.

A manager’s role in meaningful work can be considered a matter of hygiene. At most, your responsibility is to ensure that people aren’t dissatisfied with this aspect of their jobs. But you can’t expect direct interventions to increase satisfaction.

In fact, the more you meddle, the more you’re likely to create unhappiness.

Nurturing meaning


This doesn’t mean that you should give up on trying to make your people’s jobs more meaningful.

Rather, you have to keep the core attributes of meaningful work in mind. And through indirect measures, you can start promoting them within your workplace.

Respect that meaning is inherently personal. No matter how well-acquainted you are with your workers, you can’t lead in this aspect. It must be self-initiated.

Create the conditions that will foster potentially meaningful interactions and experiences. Bring people closer to each other, and allow them to really see how their work makes a difference.

Events that let them give back to the community, or interact with customers, or interface with clients, can prompt them to find that sense of transcendence.

There’s a fine line between conflict that disengages people and conflict that can promote growth and meaning. Learn to walk that line, encouraging people out of their comfort zones without making them enter ‘fight or flight’ mode.

And give your workers ample opportunities to reflect, perhaps in a team building or on their own time off.

You may not be able to predict how this process unfolds or what the results will be. Just stick with a hands-off approach, ensure that nothing dissatisfies your people in this regard, and give them the ingredients for meaning to ferment.

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