Making work meaningful from the C-suite to the frontline

It’s no secret that meaningful work matters. Research has found that when employees find their work to be meaningful, their performance improves by 33 percent, they are 75 percent more committed to their organization, and are 49 percent less likely to leave. Moreover, over the past 30 years, Americans have identified meaningful work as the most important aspect of a job—ahead of income, job security, and the number of hours worked.

Despite its importance, a recent academic article found that only 50 percent of employees find meaning in their work today. This comes as no surprise—where employees derive meaning is based on many factors, ranging from their personalities to the structure of their jobs.

However, there is one strategy that is universally applicable—showing employees the impact of their work. This isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution; rather, our experiences have found that it is “five-sizes-fit-most.” When leaders highlight the impact work has across five sources—society, company, customers, team, and personal success—they’re able to create a greater sense of meaning for their people.

A deeper look at the five sources

  1. Society: Individuals who find meaning in societal impact are energized by the benefit their work has for their community, the environment, and humankind. While it may seem that this source of meaning may be prominent in particular roles (e.g., nurses, teachers), the prosocial theory of motivation suggests that it’s a universal phenomenon—all people are consistently willing to expend additional effort when it benefits others. Consider the NASA janitor who described his job as “putting a man on the moon” during the space race of the 1970s.
  2. Company: Individuals who find meaning from their company are driven by helping their organization become a leader in the industry, attract top talent, deliver for shareholders, and maintain its reputation. Theories of psychology have shown that some individuals develop bonds with their organization where its norms, vision, and values become part of their identity. When this occurs, an organization’s success then becomes the individual’s success, too.
  3. Customers: Some individuals derive meaning from the impact on their customers: exceeding their expectations; making their lives better, easier, and safer; and providing “best-in-class” products or services. Management research on job design indicates that having an impact on and contact with customers increases effort, persistence, willingness to help, and perceptions of competence and self-worth.
  4. Team: Individuals who derive meaning from their teams are driven by working in high-performing groups, creating a psychologically safe environment, and empowering others. They look forward to coming to work every day and solving tough problems with the people they work with shoulder-to-shoulder. This is largely due to a “proximity effect”—theories of sociology indicate that employees look to those close to them for cues on how to interpret behavior. Therefore, in the workplace, teams have a significant influence over how individuals experience their work.
  5. Personal success: Individuals also find meaning through experiences that enable personal growth and success. This includes receiving recognition for contributions, having opportunities to grow and develop, working in fulfilling roles, and feeling able to bring one’s best self to work. A driving force behind this source is self-determination theory. This, similar to other theories of motivation, suggests that intrinsic motivation is experienced when three needs are met: autonomy, relatedness, and competence. Striving for personal success taps into all three.

Now that you know what the five sources are and why they work, you may be wondering how to activate them in your company. Our next post on this topic will include examples of how other organizations have successfully leveraged them to create more meaningful work and tips that leaders can use to infuse meaning in their teams.

Learn more about our People & Organizational Performance Practice