(February 1, 2017) – Employees wake up every day all over the world not knowing why they do what they do for 8-12 hours of their day. Life outside of work can have tremendous meaning through family, faith, community, and hobbies. However, at work, many have a lack of purpose. This purpose is critical to employee engagement, and it is one of the few areas where CEOs and company leaders are implicitly responsible.
Employees who find meaning in their work are more engaged and more likely to produce at a high level. McKinsey & Company calls this “meaning quotient” the most important of three components that lead to flow—“the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does…When a business environment’s MQ is low, employees put less energy into their work and see it as ‘just a job’ that gives them little more than a paycheck.”
The above quotes and related research describe the importance of giving employees purpose in what they do. The challenges that companies face in doing that are less evident. What is it that gives employees meaning in their work? Can leadership foster and nurture meaning or is it derived by individuals?
I believe that leaders underestimate the impact they can have on their employees and the meaning they can provide them by clearly articulating the mission of the company, defending it, and connecting employees’ work directly to it.
At the highest level, alignment with the mission, vision, and values of the organization are necessary for meaning realization. Employees that (1) clearly understand and believe in the mission of the company, (2) can see and articulate the vision for the future, and (3) morally align with the values of the organization are off to a great start towards having their work be meaningful to them.
However, I believe that there is a clear disconnect between the effort that companies exert establishing their company mission, vision, and values versus the amount of time they spend disseminating that information to their employees and ensuring it makes sense. It is easier to spend executive time crafting and refining alignment statements than it is to communicate why they should matter to each and every employee. Leaders are likely a part of the definition process so all of the context and reasoning is known and understood. But employees don’t participate in nearly the same way.
“It is easier to spend executive time crafting and refining alignment statements than it is to communicate why they should matter to each and every employee.”
This leads to three possible challenges:
- The first is that employees simply don’t know what the mission and values of the company are. They can’t effectively recall them in detail or even in general terms. Their work is all about individual tasks and directives from their manager and has no greater objective or guiding purpose.
- There are worse problems to have though. If you only struggle communicating your mission, then you’re in a great place. However, if your employees don’t believe in your mission, you’ve got a much steeper hill to climb. The answer here isn’t to look for new employees. You need to understand why employees don’t believe. This requires a lot of introspection and listening. It’s hard to put an idea out for criticism, but we would argue you will be much better off getting honest feedback from people who know your business best than ignoring realities that could crush it.
- The last challenge is that employees may know and believe in your business but not know how to connect what they do on a daily basis to that mission. This is a much more tactical issue. It could be due to an information gap connecting their role to the important objectives of the company, or it could be that their role is very disconnected from the mission and needs to be reconsidered entirely.
All of these potential problems are hard realities to deal with. However, if you want the kind of productivity and focus that leads to great success, you need to do an honest audit of how your people are doing and be willing to make changes to improve their ability to experience meaning in their work. The benefits are real. Don’t ignore this because it’s hard. Running a business is always hard and it is the responsibility of the CEO and leadership team to make the hard decisions necessary to succeed.
If you want to read more about meaning in work and why it is critical to foster employee engagement, check out our blog post about Psychological Safety, Meaning, and Capacity.