Michael Boyes

November 27, 2019

Without meaningful work, we sense significant loss and emptiness. People who are cut off from work because of physical, or other reasons, quickly discover how much they need work to thrive emotionally, physically, and spiritually.
~ Timothy Keller

I’ve met a lot of people who insist that they only work because they HAVE to earn a living, but that’s not true. People work because they need to work. We are meant to work. It gives us purpose. It gives us meaning in life. 

In the final years of his life, my father lamented that he was “useless.” He wanted to be productive— to be of help to other people— and it depressed him that he wasn’t. My father was not alone. A lot of people suffer through jobs that seem meaningless. Likewise, their managers suffer through dejected employees. People without purpose make miserable employees: they are directionless, unmotivated, unsatisfied, and distracted by anything that is not job-related. Responsibility for this tragedy falls at the feet of managers.

Managers organize and assign work, while leaders give people purpose and unleash human potential. With purpose, people:

  • work intelligently to solve tough problems rather than return them to their manager.
  • believe they are doing what they are meant to do, are satisfied, and experience a sense of integrity.
  • understand the importance of their work, dedicate themselves to it, become absorbed in it, and energetically attack it.

In other words, people who experience meaning in their work are more engaged in it. Consequently, the company enjoys higher productivity, quality, customer service, customer loyalty, and profitability. While those coveted outcomes go up, the unwanted outcomes go down. Absenteeism, lateness, turnover, and employee grievances all dwindle when employees experience purposefulness.

As “purposeful work” promotes everything employers and employees want, it’s leaders’ duty to ensure that jobs are meaningful and that employees grasp the meaningfulness of their work.

Here are seven ways for leaders to do that:

  1. Communicate the purpose of every role in the job description, and hire people who want to fulfill that mission. Focusing job descriptions on responsibilities and tasks only makes jobs and people small. It promotes myopia and invites people to behave like automatons. Instead, focus on the “why” and hire people who are inspired by the “why” rather than people who can do the “what” and “how.”
  • Gladly explain “why.”  People need to understand the purpose of work in order to be motivated to do it and to make good judgments about how to do it. Especially when delegating non-routine work, explain the “why.” When communicating decisions, communicate the rationale you used.
  • Show people how their work supports the mission of the team and of the company.  But don’t just do it once; do it continuously. GE turned this practice into a commercial and scored bonus points with employees and customers when they gave manufacturing employees tours of the completed planes they helped to build.
  • Show them how their work helps people. Some people are more motivated to be helpful than others, but virtually everyone finds work more meaningful and motivating when they know it is helping others.
  • Personally, connect “back-office” employees with internal and external customers to help them understand how their work is used and the importance of specification and standards.
  • Refer to your mission, vision, and values for guidance when solving problems and making decisions (in teams and individually).
  • Ensure that people are in jobs that match their values and where they get to “do what they do best.”

Purposeful Work is one just of five presents that leaders give to their followers, but in my estimation, it is the most important.  Managers are wise to remember that every person was created to live an abundant, purposeful life full of love, wonder, curiosity, and work.  Managers who connect and weave together purpose, love, and learning with work earn tremendous influence with people. They earn the title of “leader.”

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