Rather than being a source of meaning and fulfillment, organizations are often a frustrating experience with little opportunity for significance. Fortunately, the focus on meaningful work has appreciably increased over the last two decades.

People seek meaning in their work out of a natural resolve to align their external environment with their internal identity. This meaning can positively influence their job engagement and organizational commitment, directly impacting organizational vitality. Research shows that people with meaningful work report better health, well-being and engagement. They are also more likely to view mistakes as learning opportunities rather than failures.

What is meaningful to millennials and members of Generation Z is different than what baby boomers and some Generation Xers initially sought. The self-related purposes of money, recognition, self-preservation and the self-indulgent life has taken a back seat to something more self-transcendent. Or, as Steve Jobs once said, “We’re here to make a little dent in the universe.”

“Employees are looking at their companies and wanting to understand: ‘how can we make a difference in the world and do something important?’” (Michael Dell, chief executive officer, Dell Computers).

In 2016, an Accenture survey asked new college graduates what was essential to them when working at an organization, and 92% of them cited social responsibility as important. These graduates want to work for an organization that creates positive change and adds meaning to their life. They are the emerging and mid-level leaders of today’s organizations.

Organizational Purpose Is the Foundation for Meaning

Purpose is not about “what.” It’s about “why”: Why is the work we do important? The answer to “what” questions refer to the organization’s products or services. “Why” questions, on the other hand have a human focus.

Purpose is an organization’s keystone. Its role is to:

    • Generate a culture of inclusiveness throughout an organization.
    • Act as a clarifier to establish the central principles that define the organization.
    • Provide an organization-wide foundation for the meaning of its activity.

Purpose has to infuse not only the organization’s story but also its brand experience and messaging. From this viewpoint, many organizations flop.

What Kind of Purpose Leads to Meaning?

Occupational psychologist Dr. Rob Archer’s research has compared “self-related” with “self-transcendent” purpose, seeking to test if either type of purpose predicts meaning in work. He found that most people have a self-related purpose. They focus more on their immediate surroundings and have less of a need to understand the world more broadly. They often ignore information that feels uncomfortable or unhelpful if it extends beyond their immediate needs.

Individuals with a self-transcendent purpose, on the other hand, need to impact the world through their work and to benefit others, not just themselves. Doing so requires them to become more aware of themselves and their place in the world. Learning leads to comprehension and, according to Archer, eventually generates meaning in work. Surprisingly, high levels of self-related purpose tend to drown out meaning in work and predict lower engagement at work.

Based on this research, if you want to find greater meaning in your work:

    • Seek to become more self-aware by exploring personal values and behavioral preferences.
    • Consider the types of organization in which you can thrive. For example, do you feel more comfortable in a formal or informal organizational culture?
    • Ask yourself what you are seeking in the work you do. Does this work align with the causes you believe in?

As Dr. Archer says, “If you want meaning in work, then you need to work out how you can ‘dent the universe’ in some way that seems important and relevant to you.”

Cultivating a Culture of Meaningfulness

Learning and development (L&D) professionals are uniquely positioned to assist leaders in undertaking the vital responsibility of cultivating meaningfulness within the organizational culture. Meaningfulness is an emergent process from within each employee. Asking the questions listed below requires leaders to be compassionate and non-directive. If a leader runs his or her organization using command and control, meaningfulness will come across as a “have-to” rather than a natural exploration for the employee.

Perhaps the first step is to equip each leader with appreciative inquiry skills. By helping employees discover meaning, leaders help meaningfulness blossom organically. Next, they can discover what emerges for both the employee and organization:

Does the Purpose of the Organization Provide a Foundation for Personal Meaning?

Employees need to know the organization’s purpose and discuss the positive impact it makes on the community on their terms, using their own value system as a guide. Having open and authentic conversations with employees enables leaders to discover any disconnects between the stated organizational purpose and the employee’s perception of reality.

Does the Job Align With the Employee’s Sense of Meaning?

To support meaningfulness, leaders and employees need to see how the employee’s job aligns with and supports their value and purpose. Employees need to see their job as fulfilling their self-transcendent purpose to improve society in some way.

Do Individual Tasks Support the Employee’s Self-transcendent Purpose?

Many jobs come with tasks that seem dull and monotonous. It is the leader’s job to support the employee in seeing how these small things impact the organization’s larger meaning.

Uncover the Importance of Relationships

Human beings are social creatures. When employees connect with people who benefit from their work, meaningfulness is a natural outcome. Leaders need to ensure that employees feel connected to the co-workers and customers they help through their work. They can also create times during the workday when employees can share feedback and build a sense of community.

Meaningfulness can be elusive in the workplace. Learning and development professionals can help leaders cultivate a culture that facilitates employees’ highest potential to reveal meaning.