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How to Motivate Employees Through Passion and Purpose


Earlier this year, the Chicago Tribune reported on an unusual employee engagement trend. A survey of more than 67,000 employees and 219 companies showed that area employees regard their organizations more positively than the national average on nearly all measures. But they fell significantly short in response to this statement:

“My job makes me feel like I am part of something meaningful.”

Even among the city’s Top Workplaces, meaningfulness was the only measure that did not see any improvement in the annual survey.

Based on our experiences with executives here at 15Five, those survey results likely indicate a trend that’s occurring across America.

While it can be easy to focus on pay and perks or goal-setting sessions to motivate employees, driving people toward doing their best work requires something much deeper. For employees to find a real sense of passion and purpose, they need to be doing work that’s personally meaningful to them.

The question is: How do you help them find meaning?


What Motivates Employees (For Real)?

Before we get into some action steps, let’s discuss what really motivates employees. Even if you think your employees view their jobs as meaningful, they might have a very different perspective.

For the CEO, meaning is often derived from moving the business toward an overarching organizational vision. But the dynamics are much more personalized for employees.

Meaning is an important psychological condition that allows employees to feel that being immersed in work gives them value — be it through a sense of purpose, compensation, status, or influence. It’s not about the job itself, but rather how each individual views the job.

It’s also pretty powerful.

Increasing a sense of meaningfulness at work has been shown to have far more influence than initiatives related to enhancing growth and development, influencing connection to a company’s mission, and even supporting work-life balance. One study found that employees who derive meaning from their work are more than three times as likely to stay with their organizations than those who don’t, and are also 1.4 times more engaged.

No, you can’t create meaning. But you can nurture it. Here are three strategies we recommend for any company looking to better understand what motivates employees.


1. Allow greater autonomy.

When examining survey results reported by the Chicago Tribune, organizational behavior expert Amy Wrzesniewski explained that an employee’s inherent sense of meaningfulness can be suppressed when a job becomes too fast-paced to be done well, or when a manager micromanages to the point that the individual no longer has a sense of job ownership.

In our latest employee engagement trends report, we found that this might be an issue for companies that employ primarily desk-bound knowledge workers. The more hands-on management model in these office settings can make it difficult for employees to feel a sense of autonomy and job ownership.

Allowing employees greater autonomy to do their best work will gives them the freedom to inject projects with personal meaning.


2. Practice radical candor.

If you’re not yet familiar with the principle of radical candor, it’s an important one to embrace. Former Googler Kim Scott, who created the concept, describes it as a way to “create bullshit-free zones where people love their work and working together.”

At a First Round CEO Summit, Scott described radical candor as a simple tool leaders can use to ensure team members are consistently getting the feedback, guidance, and support they need to do their best work.

At its core, radical candor involves regularly providing candid, constructive guidance with the goal of creating a company culture that’s viewed as being safe, open, and honest. Without this culture of vulnerability, it can be difficult to help employees find true passion and purpose at work. In fact, in one MIT research project, poor management was identified as the top destroyer of meaningfulness—even though there was virtually no mention of leadership when people described meaningful moments at work.


3. Seek clarity.

Leadership might be aware of a specific issue or problem area, but that doesn’t necessarily mean executives know what to do about it. In these instances, it’s important to seek clarity from employees. How? Ask for it!

For example, in a previous post, we described how one company using insights to measure engagement knew that employees didn’t feel they were getting adequate training. So leadership sent out a one-question poll, known as a SmartPulse™ survey, to ask what types of training opportunities employees would like to see.

By drilling down to a specific group of employees, with a specific question that directly addresses their concern, you can easily identify exactly what needs to change.

While there are numerous ways to motivate employees, there’s a reason we’re drawn to these three specific methods. They give each employee a reason to feel invested in the work they do—one that’s personally meaningful and long-lasting.

If you’d like to learn more about how to motivate employees of different ages and in different industries, download the Emplify Insights for Executives: Employee Engagement Trends. In addition to covering each of the above areas in greater detail, this resource also covers key findings and insights into the current state of employee engagement.

Download your complimentary copy here.

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