Creating Meaningful Work – The DNA of How to Inspire People in the Workplace

In Leadership

By Michael Tonkin

In 2003 researcher and professor Wayne Cascio wrote the article “Changes in Workers, Work and Organisations”, where he concluded that meaningfulness was more important to employees than any other aspect of work. This includes pay and rewards, opportunities for promotion or working conditions.

Creating meaning or meaningful work is essential to inspiring people in the workplace. Conversely, removing the factors that erode meaning are just as important. Just like Hertzberg told us in the 1960’s, the drivers that motivate us at work are not the same as the drivers that demotivate us. The same can be said with the concept of meaning.

In an article by Catherine Bailey and Adrian Madden in 2016 titled, “What makes work meaningful or meaningless”, 135 people were interviewed from 10 very different occupations and asked to share stories about times when they found their work to be meaningful (and equally meaningless). See the findings below.

The Qualities of Meaningful Work

Results from the 135 interviews illustrated that meaningfulness, unsurprisingly, was associated with factors such as pride and achievement of a job well done, work that was absorbing and interesting as well as receiving praise from others that were impacted by the work. Interestingly, other features of meaningful work included:

  • The impact or relevance of their work on individuals, groups or the wider community.
  • Experiencing a difficult challenge and triumphing in these demanding times.
  • Peak moments rather than something that was sustainable over the course of a day or project.
  • A thoughtful, retrospective act rather than a spontaneous emotional response in the moment.
  • Something personal, not just in the context of their work but also in the wider context of their personal life experiences.

These features of meaningful work suggests that the task for leaders and organisations to help people find meaning is complex and profound, going beyond the traditional approaches of employee satisfaction or engagement.

Meaninglessness: The Seven Deadly Sins

Unlike the very personal nature of meaning at work, meaninglessness in the 135 interviews was found to be associated with how people were treated by leaders. These ‘deadly sins’ are summarised below in order from most to least serious.

  1. Disconnect people from their values.

A disconnect between their own values and those of their employer, i.e. the tension between an organisations focus on the bottom line and the individual’s focus on the quality or professionalism of work.

  1. Take your employees for granted.

Feeling unrecognised, unacknowledged or unappreciated.

  1. Give people pointless work to do.

Performing tasks that seemed futile or pointless.

  1. Treat people unfairly.

Injustices in the workplace such as one being favoured over another, bullying or a lack of opportunities for career progression.

  1. Override people’s better judgment.

When people felt they were not being listened to, that their opinions and experience did not count or that they could not have a voice.

  1. Disconnect people from supportive relationships.

A disconnect from colleagues (lack of camaraderie and relations).

  1. Put people at risk of physical or emotional harm.

Unnecessary exposure to risk.

These seven factors emerged as highly damaging to an individual’s sense of meaning at work. When several of these factors were present, meaningfulness was considerably lower.

Cultivating Meaning At Work

At Maura Fay Learning we think that the results from the interviews conducted by Catherine Bailey and Adrian Madden are fascinating. They shine a light on a concept that hardly gets talked about and looks at employee engagement from a completely different perspective.

So, as a leader, where to from here?

In order to create meaning and inspire teams we believe it’s important for leaders to first understand their people at a much deeper level and to understand what creates meaning for them. In some cases, this understanding will come from a gut instinct after years of working together but in reality, this deeper connection will come from asking quality questions to learn more.

We would encourage leaders to reflect on the following 14 questions about each of their direct reports and spend time with them 1-on-1 to draw out quality information that will help create greater meaning for their teams:

  1. How can I better connect this person and their work to the impact they’re having with our customers and possibly our community?
  2. What aspects of their work do they find most interesting or absorbing?
  3. How can I help them stop and celebrate after they’ve achieved mini-victories?
  4. How can I help them ‘light up the tunnel’ during a challenging and sustained period at work rather than only look for the ‘light at the end of the tunnel’?
  5. How can we make more of a memorable moment at work rather than just ignore it?
  6. Is there some way that I can connect the work that they do with the people that matter most to them, their friends and family?
  7. Are there too many examples at work where our focus on the bottom line could be incongruent with their desire for quality work and professionalism?
  8. Could they be the recipient of unfair treatment or bias in the workplace?
  9. Are their ideas, opinions and experiences listened to?
  10. Is there something in their job that might be causing unnecessary risk or harm to their physical or emotional wellbeing?
  11. What does this person not know about our organisation that would help them better piece together our ‘jigsaw’?
  12. What could I do to help them feel more recognised, acknowledged and appreciated?
  13. What futile tasks might they be doing that potentially makes no sense at all?
  14. How can I help strengthen the relationships they have with their colleagues? How can I ensure they get the right support from them?

Call to Action

As a leader, inspiring people at work is much more than being the cheerleader of the group; it requires a deep and profound understanding of people and the reasons they do what they do.

Start thinking about the concept of meaning and what it means for your team. Reflect on the 14 questions for each team member and see where you get to. If you want to go bold, bring them into the conversation and partner with them to discover how you can make work more meaningful for them.

And one more thing. Think about the 14 questions for yourself as a leader. What would help you get more meaning at work? The best thing you can do for your team as their leader is to model behaviours that create meaning and memorable moments..

At Maura Fay Learning we integrate the concept of leadership purpose into our ‘Empowering and Inspiring People’ learning solution. If you would like to find out more contact us today.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *