Zach’s Blog

3 Steps to Create a More Meaningful Workplace

“…given a choice, most people would prefer that their work reflect their calling and believe their work makes the world a better place. Those without a calling have a job where they ‘enjoy little discretion and experience minimal engagement or meaning’” – Barry Schwartz

Understanding what makes work meaningful to you and the people you lead may be the quintessential leadership skill for the health of your organization.

Inarguably, if you are responsible for any amount of another person’s time, you are responsible for a piece of a human life.

Leadership, management – or whatever you prefer to call it – needs a humanistic redefinition. Knowledge of the immense responsibility to care for a large part of peoples’ lives has to be the most significant competency for any leader or manager in any organization.

What else could matter as much?

As the upcoming millennial workforce is effectively reminding our organizations (by leaving, declining jobs, and choosing to pursue purpose over paycheck) work is more than merely a five-day trudge to pay day.

Studs Terkel, in the classic piece, “Working,” interviewed hundreds of people about their work and how they felt doing it.

What he found was revealing:

“Work is about a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor, in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.”

In a world where we are increasingly divided by difference, the commonality of a search for meaning in each of our lives still binds us together as a species. The search for meaning does not end when you or your people clock in for the day.

For good reason then, creating work environments where a sense of meaningfulness thrives may be the modern competitive edge in any organization.

Some will inevitably comment, “This is the fluffy stuff – how does it affect the bottom line?”

Designing work environments that nurture the human spirit can improve everything your organization does – including profit.

Over the past 75 years, research on the meaning and meaningfulness of work has consistently found that when people perceive their work as meaningful, individual and organizational benefits such as work motivation, job enrichment, positive work behaviors, performance, and engagement follow.

As research into what makes work meaningful surges, findings suggest exactly what millennials are telling us: Purpose and meaning are vital parts of human life that aren’t worth sacrificing for 8 hours every day.

So what makes work matter?

The latest research indicates that work matters when it has a higher purpose, makes a difference, occurs in a caring environment, and rises above the personal ego.

Here are three research-backed ways to start creating and nourishing a more meaningful workplace:

1. Create a shared sense of meaning.

In 1944, Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel designed a study in which participants were asked to view a simple, short animation depicting moving shapes. You can view the original here.

The researchers asked participants a simple question: “What happened?”

Nearly all of the research subjects created elaborate stories. The big triangle was a bully. The little triangle was trying to escape with the little circle. The little circle was scared. What did you see?

What actually happened in this animation? The answer is: absolutely nothing.

The animation was random, with randomly-sized shapes in random motion, and no story attached to them.

The Heider and Simmel study proved that the human brain is wired to attribute and construct meaning out of chaos. In all of the randomness of our days, work, and lives we are all searching for and constructing meaning.

The same is true in every organization. and if organizations don’t orient people toward a common meaning, they will create their own, which can waste incredible amounts of energy and time.

Developing, espousing, and enacting a higher organizational purpose, therefore, can be powerful.

A higher organizational purpose is not a mission statement. A mission statement is a formal summary of the aims and values of a company, organization, or individual.

A higher organizational purpose, on the other hand, is a deeply held, shared sense of directedness thoughtfully created, espoused, and enacted by the organization to reflect the organization’s contributions to the broader society.

By reflecting on why your organization exists in the world, and focusing on how the product or services improve people’s lives, a shared sense of meaningfulness emerges. And when people believe in that purpose, values and behaviors change.

2. Emphasize prosocial values.

When people have a higher purpose, they develop and live with more care for others. Prosocial values, research studies show, are a critical component to creating a meaningful work environment.

Values have been defined as “…trans-situational goals that serve as guiding principles in peoples’ lives” and in numerous studies, researchers have found that when values are oriented toward the welfare of other people such as benevolence (preservation and enhancement of the welfare or people) and universalism (understanding, appreciation, tolerance, and protection for the welfare of all people) people rate their experiences at work higher.

Perhaps more importantly, when employees perceive that their organization holds such values as humanity, benevolence, and vision, they are more likely to build a stronger emotional commitment to the organization which, based on research, reduces turnover, improves engagement, and positively impacts performance.

How are prosocial values enacted in your organization? Are they emphasized in your recruitment plan, on-boarding and training, performance evaluations, and rewards structure? They should be.

People who live out these prosocial values show more care for their co-workers, deliver better customer service, and, above all, are happier.

The sense of a higher purpose put into action by prosocial values creates a climate where people want to come to work – and yes, that affects the bottom line.

3. Reward self-transcendent (not self-fulfilling), behaviors.

Maslow described the self-transcendent person as someone who seeks to further a cause beyond the self and to experience a communion with others beyond the boundaries of the self.

When your organization has a higher organizational purpose and emphasizes prosocial values at work, a self-transcendent orientation usually follows.

Does your organization’s rewards system align with the behaviors that a sense of meaningfulness enables?

The quickest way to topple a culture of meaningfulness is to reward meaningless behaviors, namely, self-serving behaviors.

Do you reward self-centered and egocentric behaviors? Or, do you reward helping and service behaviors?

The culture will follow what you reward. When people tell me, “My employees just treat each other terribly!” I always respond, “Do you reward them to do otherwise?” Most often, the answer is no.

Rewarding behaviors that demonstrate the selfless service, care, and responsibility for others puts your money where your mouth is.

When employees are rewarded for enacting prosocial values, they will do them more. When they do them more, a more caring and supportive environment is created; the type of environment that makes work matter.

4 thoughts on “3 Steps to Create a More Meaningful Workplace”

    • Tracy,

      Thanks so much for reading. I had the chance to read the white paper this weekend and it is spot on with what I have been finding in my research.
      Very exciting to see the purpose you yourself are building and delivering with Emotive.

      I’m curious, what was your tipping point in devoting your work and life toward inspiring purpose-centered, meaningful, and values-driven organizations? For me, personally, I had a convenient “early life crisis”
      in which I found myself in a purposeless job that I crawled my way out of. It seems most of us in this work have some sort of personal experience that led us to make this our life’s work!

      For me, I realized that when people spend almost 35% of their waking existence at work, yet 30% of Americans aren’t engaged in their work, what does that mean for society? These people go home. They have families, friends, and lives. The idea that people put their hearts in a locker when they clock in for the day disturbs me!

      I do a lot of speaking and training on building purpose-oriented organizations at and I am also a PhD student in Organizational Learning, Performance, and Change – my research focused on “…what are the environmental factors that elicit a sense of meaning and meaningfulness at work?”

      Let me know if you ever need anything, or specifically any help with designing research to see and discover what is working and how.

      Have a great week.



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