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Finding Meaning and Purpose

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The New Yorker cartoon in our November newsletter says it all. Originally published a decade ago, it highlights the long-standing absence of purpose felt by most employees in the workplace.

Here we see a startled employee being supported by staff after suffering from an apparent moment of finding purpose in his work. “Really, I’m fine,” he says as he leans against an office wall, “It was just a fleeting sense of purpose — I’m sure it will pass.”

At Engagient, we like to tell our clients that one of the primary responsibilities of senior leadership in an organization is to help every employee find a sense of meaning and purpose in their work. Without making this connection, it will be impossible for the organization to provide an employee with the conditions that unleash the passion and commitment each employee has at their discretion.

The research here is very clear. Purpose and meaning are essential if we are to tap into the intrinsic motivators that bring out behavioral excellence and passion that can drive an employee to remarkable levels of productivity AND satisfaction.

A number of old notions about the workplace get in our way. I am regularly asked by CEO’s as I travel around North America, “What ever happened to a decent days work for a decent days pay?” This is a traditional view of employees that sees them more like robots – free of emotion, aspirations, goals or hopes – rather than like the human beings they really are. People will respond to their environment, so if you treat employee like production assets they will respond in kind (and you will not see the kind of discretionary effort that makes the workplace both rewarding and more productive).

I was debriefing a CEO in St. Louis just last week after his staff took our employee engagement pulse survey and one of his senior team members asked, “Did you ever consider that some people come to work as just a job and not a career?” Her question was sincere, and the point from her perspective was that some people are engagement outliers – and perhaps we should not work too hard or expect too much from them in terms of workplace absorption, commitment or passion.

At Engagient, we could not disagree more, even if we understand that point of view. Here is what we do know, virtually every employee is capable of finding meaning and purpose in what they do, regardless of whether they see their work as a job or a career.

Stay tuned to our blog and Best Practices as we will continue to focus on how to help employees find meaning and purpose in what they do. If you have examples of how you have done it, please let us know so we can showcase your efforts.

BEST PRACTICE TIP — Work with your senior leadership team to build a list of possible sources of meaning and purpose for the company over-all (i.e., corporate social responsibility, valued community member, changing/improving the lives of our customers) in addition to specific job categories (i.e., focus on quality, valued team member, attention to detail, direct contribution to t5he organization’s success). Every job needs meaning and purpose if you want employees to be engaged at an emotional level in what they do.

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Don Rheem’s presentation on Employee Engagement gets underneath the real “whys” on the behavior of discretionary effort. I found his examples to be relative and understandable. I see how our leaders are making better connections with the hearts of our people, so everyone better understands the goals of the enterprise.

--Peter Rittenhouse, Director of Supply Chain
Nestle Waters
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