Got meaning? Seven drivers to leverage meaning at work

Dave Ulrich

In the last few years, many leaders have been playing a corporate version of "Whack-A-Mole." Every time a crisis pops up - like the need to cut costs, keep customers, or outsmart competitors-- they move quickly to beat back the problem, and then move to the next crisis.

But now, as the economy slowly begins to recover, leaders need to shift from attacking short-term problems to developing long term opportunities. Emerging from the economic recession will require us to overcome a parallel psychological recession. Many employees and leaders are fatigued with "Whack-A-Mole," and want more out of work than endless responses to crises. The degree to which leaders address this need will define their future successes.

As organizations emerge from the recession, leaders need to become “meaning makers” who help employees replace deficit thinking with abundant thinking. Abundance is not found in circumstances or events—in how big a raise we got or how many people report to us. Abundance is found in the value we place on those events and the way we interpret their impact on us. Meaning is not inherent in events; it is made by people. This is the good news and the not-so-good news. Good news: the meaning of our lives is not controlled by what happens. Not-so-good news: we have to work at this meaning-making process. It takes work to determine what work means, at either a corporate or a personal level. Leaders have the primary responsibility for this meaning-making process.

At a personal level, inner dialogues shape and construct this meaning. If you tell yourself you’re not paid well because you’re not respected for your skills, you build a different meaning than if you tell yourself how glad you are to work for an organization that is fiscally responsible. If you tell yourself your boss’s criticism means he is trying to help you improve because he values your contribution and wants you to succeed, you build different meaning than if you tell yourself his criticism is a forerunner to your getting fired for incompetence. If you see your company as a major contributor to solving the energy crisis, you have a different feeling about the value of your labour than if you are just crunching numbers for someone else’s selfish agenda.

At a corporate level, leaders can help shape and construct the meaning employees assign to corporate realities, focusing corporate consciousness on opportunities instead of deficits.

Leaders cannot afford to leave the creation of meaning to chance. People who discover meaning at work also tend to work harder, more creatively, and with more tenacity, giving the companies that employ them a leg up in the marketplace. When people make sense of their jobs they also make cents for their companies, a bottom line leaders can’t ignore. While data to support this assertion are often indirect, consider a few telling scenarios:

  • Over a 10 year period (1998 to 2008) “best companies to work for” have a 6.8 % stock appreciation vs. 1.0% for the average firm.
  • 61 hospitals in the UK had a 7% decline in death rate of patients when they invested in the well-being of their staff.
  • Only 13% of disengaged employees would recommend their company’s products or services, compared with 78% of engaged employees.
  • The probability of an Initial Public Offering succeeding goes from 60 to 79% when the new company invests in its people.
  • Disengaged employees are ten times more likely to say they will leave their company within a year.

Such examples support the conclusion that when companies invest in the well-being of employees they invest in their own bottom line. But what connects the dots between money spent on people and money earned? Should companies invest in better health care packages? Child care facilities? Cruises for high performers? Dog parks for pets at work?

While any of these things might be supremely valued by one employee or another, leaders can make more informed decisions about how to motivate and engage their employees by considering the question of meaning. When have you had a meaningful experience at work? Even in unfavourable circumstances, people can experience an activity as meaningful when it resonates with chosen values, connects them with people they like, raises their sense of competence, or gives them an ‘ah-ha’ moment of insight.

From what we know about how the human brain works, the ability to create meaning is also enhanced by challenge (solving a problem that is not too hard or too easy), emotional safety (fostered by friendship, fairness, and self-esteem), autonomy (structure but not micromanagement), and perhaps most importantly, by learning from experienced meaning-makers. In other words, we learn to create meaning like we learn most things – from watching and listening to others who do it well.

Enter, the Leader. Leaders who help shape a vision that is engaging to others, who weave the stories that help people make sense of the past and imagine the future, and who tap into the unique desires and values of individuals engage people’s hearts as well as their heads and hands.

So how can leaders more systematically help employees find meaning at work? In The Why of Work: "How Great Leaders Build Abundant Organizations that Win", research was culled from diverse fields of thought to suggest seven drivers of meaning leaders can leverage to this end.


Seven Drivers of Meaning

  1. Help employees identify and creatively use the traits and values (like integrity, leadership, love of learning, kindness, etc.) they most identify with. How can leaders help employees develop strengths that strengthen others?
  2. Match the purposes (insight, achievement, connection, or empowerment) that motivate employees to do the jobs they do, helping them create a line of sight between their work and the results that matter most to each person. How can leaders help others create the story that connects their work to their passions?
  3. Foster friendships and key relationship-building skills to create high-performing, high-relating teams. How can employees learn to connect with each other both socially and emotionally?
  4. Promote positive work environments through attention to characteristics like humility, selflessness, order, and openness. How can leaders promote a physical and emotional work environment with affirming routines that resonates for employees and customers alike?
  5. Help people identify and work at the types of challenges that line up with their personal experience of engagement or flow. How can leaders customize what work employees do and how they do increase flow and creativity?
  6. Build in time for both individual and corporate-level self-reflection to help people discover lessons from setbacks and develop resilience and to get in front of the pace of change. How can leaders consciously generate ideas with impact and generalize them throughout the organization?
  7. Encourage civility and delight from little things that personalize and civilize the world of work (e.g., time to chat, recognition, praise, friendly competitions, cookies, pictures, playfulness, humor, and creativity). How can leaders promote civility and delight without turning the plant floor into a frat house?


These seven drivers offer leaders a starting menu for the creation of meaning at work. Leaders who are serious about being meaning makers will make a difference, to themselves, their employees, customers, and investors.


Reprinted with the permission of Dave Ulrich, Ph.D. ([email protected]) and Wendy Ulrich, Ph.D, ([email protected])  co-authors of The Why of Work: How Great Leaders Build Abundant Organizations that Win (McGraw Hill, 2010), recently ranked #1 on the Wall Street Journal and USA business best seller list and a New York Times Best Seller.


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