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The science of what makes work meaningful

Meaningful work isn’t just some lofty goal. In a tight labor market, it’s essential to keeping your employees. On this episode of The New Way We Work, we explore how to find meaning and fulfillment in any job.

The science of what makes work meaningful
[Photo: Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images]

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There are a lot of things that make for a good job: fair pay and benefits, a boss who treats you with empathy and respect, an inclusive culture, and friendships with colleagues. But there’s one aspect of a “good job” that’s a little bit harder to pin down: What makes for meaningful work?

Meaningful work—a job that isn’t just about paying the bills, but is connected to purpose, that makes you feel fulfilled and valuable—isn’t just some lofty goal. In a tight labor market, it’s essential to keeping your employees. In fact, according to a recent Gallup poll, it takes more than a 20% pay raise to lure most employees away from a job where they feel engaged, and unsurprisingly next to nothing to poach most disengaged workers.

So, what makes employees feel engaged with their work, and has that changed in the last few years?

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On the most recent episode of The New Way We Work, David Rock explains the factors that make a job meaningful. Rock is the cofounder and CEO of NeuroLeadership Institute, a cognitive science consultancy that has advised some of the biggest companies. He is also the author of four books including Your Brain at Work, and a contributor to Fast Company.

Rock points to a process in the brain referred to as “the ladder of construal,” which is basically how you connect your actions to larger purpose. It’s how, as he says, the janitor at NASA doesn’t view his actions as simply sweeping the floor, but instead as being connected to the larger purpose of putting people in space. But finding that connection to a larger purpose can be more challenging when your company isn’t saving lives or sending people to the moon. It can also be difficult for employees to stay connected to the larger meaning and purpose of work when they’re bogged down in back-to-back meetings.

To help employees find that connection, Rock suggests that managers create a set of shared goals and return to them frequently. “The more a manager creates shared goals, the more they create a sense of being part of an ‘in group’ between the team. That’s a really important thing, because when you have a sense of [an] ‘in group,’ you have much deeper collaboration,” he says. “Your brain literally pays more attention and processes more accurately. . . . You get more accurate sharing of information, more accurate perception, better collaboration, and good motivation.”

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Of course, not everyone finds motivation from the same things. Rock points to NeroLeadership’s SCARF assessment which has been used by many companies to figure out how to keep employees motivated and engaged. SCARF stands for Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, and Fairness. The model, he says, was created over the course of several years by scientists studying the brain’s rewards systems. It describes what Rock calls the five intrinsic motivations. “When you’re trying to create meaning for someone [who is] really passionate about autonomy, they love it when they have choices, so to that person  meaningful work is when they get to be more in control,” he explains. Meanwhile if someone finds more motivation in relatedness, meaningful work for them is when they feel really connected to people and helping other people.

Listen to the episode for how to identify your and your colleagues’ motivations, how to keep all employees engaged with hybrid work, and how to adjust your mindset to make it through challenging work environments.

You can listen and subscribe to The New Way We Work on Apple PodcastsGoogle PodcastsStitcherSpotifyRadioPublic, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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About the author

Kathleen Davis is Deputy Editor at FastCompany.com. Previously, she has worked as an editor at Entrepreneur.com, WomansDay.com and Popular Photography magazine.

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