At various points in history, the prevailing view of work was that it was both unavoidable and distasteful. “To the ancient Greeks, work was a curse that prevented humankind from engaging in the more sublime and worthwhile pursuits of the mind and spirit,” wrote one pair of academics studying the issue. Pay is called “compensation” because it compensates the worker for being somewhere she would rather not be, doing something she would rather not do.
“If you don’t want to work, you have to work to earn enough money so that you don’t have to work,” said Ogden Nash. “The brain is a wonderful organ; it starts working the moment you get up in the morning and does not stop until you get into the office,” quipped Robert Frost. When people are treated like widgets, at least, Nash’s and Frost’s views hold true.
Three-quarters of Americans value the missions of their organizations. That’s an exceptionally high proportion, inflated by people gravitating toward enterprises that spark their interest, but also juiced by their innate need to be part of something bigger than themselves. It’s an astounding 87% in India. Large majorities in every region believe their jobs are important and see how their work connects to larger company goals. The proportion who disagree with these statements around the globe runs in the single digits. To no other rule are people so likely to answer positively.
A person may have a neglectful manager. The pay might be marginal. The hours might be rough. The place may be at risk of closing or being sold. Through all of it, most employees will still find meaning in their work. That says something profound about the reasons why people work.
The statement, “I value my company’s mission,” is twice as powerful as the statement, “I am paid fairly,” in predicting the average employee’s sense of obligation to work hard for the company, her willingness to work hard for customers, and her pursuit of better ways of getting the job done. It is a substantially stronger predictor of her being innovative in the role and being proud of working at her company. Money is important, particularly for signing on and staying. But for daily drive, meaning trumps money.
Some of the people who understand this best are those who have been “terminated.” It’s not just the loss of income and security that gave them a gut punch, they’ll tell you. It’s waking up the next morning to the realization, as one suddenly unemployed man did, that “I didn’t just lose my job; I lost my purpose.”
The double-edged sword of meaning is that as much as companies love their employees to wrap themselves in the corporate mission, those connections—what four researchers called “work-role centrality”—make ever-more-common layoffs all the more painful. “Because individuals with high work-role centrality find the work role as providing meaning and fulfillment, the absence of work for these individuals . . . lead[s] to lower psychological and physical well-being,” they concluded.
“My calling is gone,” wrote a veteran newspaper reporter knocked out by the collapse of that industry. “I used to be a top reporter in this town, and I felt an ownership of it. I am about as useful to the world as dryer lint.”
The patterns in the survey responses show that company leaders don’t need to do much for people to have a sense of meaning in their work. People who work at an ice cream maker usually come to the company already with a love of ice cream. People who join a tech firm already think technology is cool. You don’t have to sell them on the product.
Showing them how what they do leads to larger enterprise successes, connections of which they may not be aware, proves to be highly reinforcing. Recognizing not just those who score the goal but everyone who helped get it to that end of the field always plays well. But because meaning is an intense and individual phenomenon, attempts to amplify it by presuming to tell employees why they should value the mission run a high risk of coming across as mere sloganeering. Making meaning gimmicky, like the department store chain that created a set of company-value rubber bracelets, can make an employee feel foolish for his earlier belief.
“Most organizations draw together a committee of people, maybe the leadership of the company and the board, and write out the purpose statement and pick the values for that organization,” said Tom Gardner, CEO of the investment site The Motley Fool. “And then they hand that down like a tablet from the mountaintop. Every new employee gets a document that they’re supposed to look at, memorize, and deploy that thinking in their work from one day to the next. The problem is that you can’t really own that as an individual, can you? You’ve been handed that purpose statement and those values.”
The Motley Fool has six core values. The sixth is left blank for the employee to fill in. Gardner came across one employee who wrote in that space, “I like to have a beer at 4 o’clock on Friday.”
“Why? How could that be your core value?” he asked the worker. “What does that mean? I’m not upset by it. I’m just curious.”
“I like to make a transition from work to home,” he replied. “I like to have a little fun in the workplace that gets me ready for the weekend. I don’t want to just break at the end of Friday and then have my fun. I want to enjoy myself with people that I work with. That’s why I have a beer every Friday at 4.”
“I thought,” said Gardner, “that’s a wonderful way to express something that matters to this person at our workplace.”
In lifesaving or life-changing professions such as medicine, law enforcement, national intelligence, or teaching, the purpose is compelling and easy to latch onto. In the less serious occupations, people look for reasons to believe nonetheless, to either enlarge the meaning or have a high level of dedication to the work regardless of what others may think.
Sometimes an employee is pursuing a lifelong interest. She’s been good at math since the first grade, and accounting seemed almost her destiny. Sometimes he takes a job because he needs the money and, along the way, finds himself drawn into the purpose of the company. In either case, the strength of a person’s connection to the mission depends heavily on whether he’s building Bionicles in a “meaningful,” “zero-context,” or “shredded” environment.
Whether someone finds purpose in his or her work is largely a consequence of how that employee is treated, how he or she is made to feel important, how genuinely the enterprise’s leadership talks about the mission of the company, and whether leaders do anything to cheapen that meaning. Working at the Department of Motor Vehicles can be either full of meaning, taking license photos of 16-year-olds on one of the biggest days of their lives, or an endless slog of forms and angry people and a slow computer system. Meaning grows or gets stomped on depending on the quality of the leadership and management.
Those who work for exemplary leaders and dedicated managers adopt the mission of the organization. They make it their own. They become personally invested in a goal they may not have anticipated when they were hired. The evidence is equally clear, however, that employees who are neglected either become cynics or, believing in the goal but unable to take the working conditions, go elsewhere to fulfill a similar mission. People naturally gravitate toward meaning at work, but that meaning can be diluted or entirely washed away.
This article is adapted from Widgets: The 12 New Rules For Managing Your Employees As If They’re Real People (McGraw-Hill, April 2015) by Rodd Wagner, a New York Times best-selling author, employee engagement practice leader for BI Worldwide, and former principal of Gallup. It is reprinted with permission. Follow Rodd on Twitter at @Rodd_Wagner.