[Updated on 22 January 2018]
How do you help employees find meaning in their work?
By AMANDA CHUA
Those are the buzz words of what Millennials are looking for in every aspect of their lives.
As much as job happiness at the workplace is important, the external factors of engagement that contribute to employee satisfaction such as having a cool office and lucrative employee benefits are superficial and temporary.
With the wave of start-up entrepreneurs and the move towards more social-driven organisations in recent years, purpose has moved to the forefront of employees’ minds.
While the abovementioned employee benefits are nice to have, studies have shown that half of the current workforce would take a 15% pay cut to join a “purposeful” organisation.
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Money has become less of a motivator today as we find that more individuals are leaving their stable high paying jobs to pursue passions or work aligned with their life purpose.
Being a purpose-driven generation, it is not surprising to hear of Millennials choosing careers that give them a strong sense of meaning and contribution to the world. However, it is not just Millennials that opt for career paths in which purpose precedes pay.
It is no longer surprising to find older adults who feel a compelling need to contribute and give back to society. They are at a stage in their lives that is driven by their sense of significance to make a difference and leave a legacy.
Beyond just making an income and achieving career success, finding purpose in their work becomes a higher priority.
Fulfilment through purpose
Fulfilment is often associated with “doing what you love” which the late co-founder of Apple, Steve Jobs advocated in his speech: “You’ve got to find what you love . . . Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work.
“And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle.” But is it worth it all? Is finding our purpose or calling at work overrated?
Being connected to the mission and purpose of a company is not a basic need (i.e. a comfortable salary, good benefits, conducive working environment) but the search for meaning emerges when those basic needs are met.
The employees start seeking something to believe in that is aligned to their values which make them feel a sense of importance through their contribution towards a higher purpose.
This, according to Gallup, addresses the human emotional need where the search for meaning benefits our psychological and physical health.
An employee is not motivated without knowing how their job fits in the grand scheme of things as reflected in the Eighth engagement item (Q8: The mission or purpose of my company makes me feel my job is important) of Gallup’s Q12 Employee Engagement Survey.
When I was searching for my first job, there was a tension and conflict between pursuing the ideal career path of “doing what I love” versus finding a stable job which I deemed to have better career prospects.
The first few years of my career, I thought that having a well-paying job with good learning opportunities and promising career progression was enough to keep me satisfied.
That was until the opportunity to be involved with non-profits and social initiatives came along, making me feel that my work mattered and I could make an impact.
That sense of fulfilment was refreshing and inspiring which led to higher levels of job satisfaction. I started asking myself: “There has got to be more than just taking home a pay check and making profits for the company.”
And that was just the beginning of a paradigm shift that changed my work approach, to see beyond just doing a job and finding purpose in how my work can contribute to benefit someone or wider society.
Start with “Why”
Having a deep sense of purpose helps chart and set the course of our lives, that also applies to our work. It is innate in us to want to dedicate ourselves to an endeavour greater than ourselves which contributes to our need for significance and meaning.
As much as individual success is important, we are more committed if we feel that our work is contributing towards a higher quest.
We seek to belong to a tribe that is part of a larger cause with the same goals; knowing our company is able to share our values, represent and stand for what we believe in keeps us loyal.
A social organisation that I recently worked with believes that the majority of employees are attracted to the company due to the cause that the company drives and the mission that they stand for.
As much as the overall engagement levels of the company are low, what keeps the employees going is how connected they feel with the mission and purpose where their job presents the opportunity to see the impact that they are making on a daily basis.
In contrast, the internal support function of the company is the most disengaged largely due to the low scores on the Q8 engagement item, where they feel disconnected from the rest of the organisation.
This is because their daily operations do not allow them to see how their work contributes to the overall company’s vision and mission.
In line with Simon Sinek’s “Start with Why”, very few people know why they do what they do which creates the foundation behind the cause, purpose, belief and why the organisation exists.
Sinek highlights this as paramount where, in order to be successful, we need to work from the inside out. Inspired and successful organisations think and communicate following on Sinek’s Golden Circle starting from “Why” before moving on to the “How” and “What”.
Knowing and communicating “the why behind the what” in everything we do, not only creates higher motivation and engagement in your employees but also buy-in from your customers.
Take, for example, Apple. They could have chosen to be simply any other computer company churning out quality products. Instead, they sell the idea of innovation, challenging the status quo, thinking differently in the way they bring beautifully-designed and user-friendly products to market.
Purpose-driven organisations stay core to their mission by always keeping the “why” in mind. They keep their company’s purpose at the centre by communicating a message of how they are able to add value and enhance the lives of others.
Finding purpose at work
It is not difficult to see how altruistic healthcare professionals and educators would see how their work as important and we have seen that they find their job meaningful with high scores in this engagement item.
What is interesting is when we find employees who rate highly in this engagement score, regardless of industry – in finance, manufacturing or retail, for example.
This indicates that the company does not have to be a non-profit or social organisation to create an environment that fosters this feeling.
It is not uncommon to assume that workers in “dirty work” occupations or jobs that are stigmatised as messy, unpleasant or undignified would be disengaged.
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The surprising find in a study done by sociologists is that the workers in these industries are able to transcend their trivial job roles and bad working conditions to find their jobs meaningful and rewarding.
A prison guard turned what seemed to be a high risk job on its head by instead seeing it as a fulfilment towards a higher calling to protect and uphold the safety of the public and society.
These people see their jobs as more than just a career or source of income; they have a genuine belief that their work contributes towards a greater good that makes the world a better place. They are able to make the strong connection between how “The mission or purpose of my company makes me feel my job is important”.
Just like how a janitor responded with “I’m helping put a man on the moon!” when President John F. Kennedy asked what he was doing when he visited NASA in 1961.
The janitor felt that he was a part of a larger narrative and making his mark on history by doing his part in the company no matter how insignificant the job may seem.
The job does not define the person as employees can derive meaning even from the mundane and develop a purposeful working environment for themselves.
Engagement through company’s mission and purpose
Employees are three times more engaged and productive when they know that they are making a positive impact through their work.
The best employers provide opportunities for their workforce to develop a sense of purpose and belonging through their work and enable them to make a difference at their workplace.
Helping employees find their purpose is mutually beneficial for both employer and employee. When they see their work as a calling, they are highly motivated and determined to push hard towards achieving those worthy goals regardless of remuneration.
It is not surprising to find that companies that have highly engaged employees are the ones that are able to find a balance in realising both social impact and bottom line impact equally.
Effective organisations provide clarity to the mission and how individuals contribute which makes it more actionable. Organisations need to not only showcase their values and purpose by making it visible within the company but to reinforce them in their day-to-day behaviours with the right organisational culture and support structures. Leaders who are able to articulate company values clearly set the right tone from the top down.
Bridging employee’s purpose to company mission
Purpose can come in many different forms and is an abstract concept for many. Each employee has different worldviews and ideas on what purpose means to them.
Hence, the mission statement plastered on the company’s wall may be familiar but can be too ambiguous or general meaning that employees cannot connect or identify with it.
Questions that often come to employees’ minds include: Why is my work important? What impact am I making? Am I making a difference in the world/environment/people? Do I believe in the company mission and values? How is my company living out their organisational mission and values?
Expanding how purpose could manifest in the organisation cultivates a sense of belonging which leads to higher engagement and sustainable performance.
As a manager or leader of the company, knowing the unique definitions of what constitutes purpose in each employee’s eyes helps to establish better understanding and bridge the connection between company’s shared values and employees.
Great managers do not only translate the company’s mission and purpose into a common language that everyone can understand, but they create engagement by contextualising and drawing the link of how their day-to-day tasks contributes to the company’s overall shared goal.
Managers need not fully understand the reason behind each endeavour but appreciate and focus on working towards fulfilling this need.
Being part of a greater purpose
The Q8 engagement element considers the alignment between employee and organisational values where the match in value proposition between their purpose and company’s mission becomes a motivating factor. In essence, organisations and teams benefit most when they collectively create a meaningful work culture for employees to thrive in.
We all have the inherent desire to be productive contributing members of society and be part of a movement that benefits society as a whole.
With the autonomy and opportunity to contribute to something bigger than ourselves, it creates high levels of job satisfaction and personal happiness.
We want something to belong to and a company that enables our job to play an integral part in fulfilling to the overall mission and purpose that we believe in, is a company that we want to be part of.