The secrets behind meaning: 3 things leaders can do right now to make work meaningful

It is well documented that when employees find meaning in their work they are more likely to stay, more likely to perform well and more likely to recommend their workplace to others. The key question is how to help people cultivate meaning in their work. Research shows that finding meaning in your work is deeply personal. A leader cannot make somebody find work meaningful; however, a poor manager can destroy the meaning of work in an instant.

While a profound organizational mission, inspiring vision and transformational leadership are positive forces on helping people find meaning in their work, there are three core management practices that have a more direct impact:

  • Involve people in planning
  • Help people grow
  • Create a supportive environment

Involve people in planning

Our research has shown that involving people in planning is the single biggest driver of employee engagement. When we involve people in planning we help them connect their work to the bigger picture. It helps people understand how they make an impact. While a profound mission and inspiring vision are powerful, they will only cultivate meaning if individuals can connect their work to how they personally are helping the organization achieve it. According to Dr. Katie Bailey, meaning goes beyond the context of somebody’s work, requiring a person to see how their work makes an impact in the wider context of their entire life experience.

Our planning method helps teams set Complete Goals™, where we define targets and outcomes, but more importantly the critical supporting lines that help teams achieve their plan. The secret to involving people in planning is that you get a better plan because you have more diversity of thought and the people closer to the work are significantly more effective at identifying the critical supporting lines than the leaders. Involving people in planning also helps make it ‘our plan’ instead of ‘their plan’. People feel like they had influence on setting targets and defining their work. At the end of planning, every single person in your organization should understand 2-3 ways that they help the organization achieve its mission and vision.

Help People Grow

In 1970 Robert Greenleaf published his seminal work, “Servant as Leader” in which he asserted that the true test of leadership is ‘did people grow’? His test is a ‘whole life’ test where leaders helped people become wiser, freer and more autonomous. While that is a high bar, it is not as difficult to achieve as you may think. Our research proves that Greenleaf’s theory is on point. Showing a genuine interest in people’s growth cultivates psychological safety, improves performance, increases engagement … and helps make work more meaningful.

While I believe the vast majority of leaders have a genuine interest in helping people grow, 79% do not show it. This is a profound statistic, though perhaps not surprising given the time constraints placed on today’s leaders, the pressure to achieve short-term results and the erroneous belief that they are indeed helping people grow (for example, 94% leaders think they are providing effective 1-on-1 meetings, while <10% of employees agree).

Based on our research, there are specific aspects of helping people grow that cultivate meaning in their work:

  • provide opportunities to develop skills related to their interests
  • help people understand how their current role helps them move toward their long-term personal goals
  • co-create a development plan that helps people meet their own performance expectations

This requires a conversation about somebody’s interests, long-term personal goals and personal performance expectations. In our experience, these conversations do not happen as frequently as people would like.

Create a supportive environment

While this might sound obvious, only 31% of people say they have the support they need to be successful in their role. This is a glaring example of common sense not being common practice. The good news is that there are three impactful actions leaders can take to immediately make work more meaningful:

  • Effective 1-on-1s. Ensure that you offer 1-on-1s focused on development and experience, not just tactics. 
  • Regular feedback and recognition. Feedback and recognition are critical to help people know if they are on track and to show where they are having an impact. 
  • Living the values. One of the fastest ways to destroy meaning is to not live organizational values. Everybody on the team must live these values to cultivate meaning.

All three of these actions will have an immediate impact on your culture. People will find more meaning in their work, which is strongly correlated to team performance. 

Put this into practice

To help leaders rapidly become more effective, we have created The Playbook, our free guide to the foundations of high-performance leadership. If you would like to pinpoint your personal development priorities, take our free High-Performance Leader Self-Assessment or we can help you get a 360° review. 

We empower leaders to make common sense, common practice. How can we help you?