Meaning Matters

Earlier this year, Emily Esfahani Smith wrote an article in The Atlantic titled, "There’s More to Life Than Being Happy."  Now, I’m not ready to throw in the towel on my pursuit of happily ever after... but it’s hard not to take note of the frequent mention of ‘meaning’ in articles, books, and other works of thought leaders.

Gary Hamel counsels managers to see themselves as “entrepreneurs of meaning.”  In Good Business, Csikszentmihalyi dedicates significant energy to the “making of meaning.” And McKinsey Quarterly ran an article last month dedicated to “Increasing the Meaning Quotient of Work."

According to psychiatrist/neurologist/Nazi concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl, “Man’s search for meaning is the primary motivation in life.” Given the central role of work in modern-day existence, it makes sense that the search for meaning plays out on the job.

Does Meaning Really Matter at Work?

If you don’t buy the whole ‘primary motivation in life’ argument, perhaps you’ll be swayed by Richard J Davidson, PhD from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. According to Dr. Davidson, “The positive emotions accompanying thoughts that are directed toward meaningful goals is one of the most enduring components of well-being.”

And Daniel Pink confirms that having a sense of purpose and contributing to a greater good improves performance, motivation, and personal satisfaction.

So, meaning clearly matters... perhaps to the point that wise leaders may want to consider elevating it to the same level of attention that job satisfaction, culture, and employee engagement currently enjoy in many organizations.

But I'm Just a...

Let’s be honest. We’re not all researchers dedicated to finding cures for debilitating diseases. Or inventors of new technologies and solutions for worldwide threats. Most of us do something considerably less dramatic and more mundane.

Yet, there is meaning in all of the work that is done each day... if we choose to seek it out and honor it.

Is Meaning Playing Hide and Seek with You?

Are you wondering where the meaning might be in your work? Consider one or more of the following strategies to root out the significance and importance of your 9-5 existence.

  1. Identify and consciously use your unique strengths, talents, and gifts. No one else can do quite what you can. Understanding that underscores a purpose that only you can fulfill - at work and in life.
  2. Put values into action. Intentionally living a set of values elevates all that you do. Bringing integrity, respect, or positivity to all that you do profoundly affects others and your outcomes.
  3. Connect your contribution with the big picture. Understand and remind yourself of how you work feeds into and supports a greater whole. You’re not a cog in a wheel, but rather an essential component whose absence would leave things incomplete.
  4. Serve others. Helping others meet their needs and achieve their goals creates lasting meaning. When others flourish as a result of your efforts, you succeed as well.
  5. Influence the organizations to do good. You’re in a powerful position to magnify your meaning as you help your organization take action that contributes to a better world - whether it’s through company-sponsored volunteerism or simply influencing constructive decisions.
  6. Take time to reflect on actions, successes, and learning. Take a pause to let the results of your activity and effort sink it. Through reflection, you can make sense and find meaning in all that you experience.
  7. Seek out challenges that make a difference. Stretch yourself deliberately and in directions that yield improvements. You’ll find meaning in your own development as well as the outcomes that it can yield.

In the workplace, meaning will likely not come knocking on your office doors or cubicle walls every day. We need to search it out, consciously and actively finding the significance behind the sometimes mundane tasks that we perform.

And leaders need to help others find meaning in their work by modeling and teaching these strategies.

What could it mean to operate in an environment committed to everyone finding meaning at work? I’m not sure... but I’d sure like to find out.

Image: Liz Price

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