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Meaning and purpose at work: Beyond the buzzwords

“Purpose” is having a moment. It appears in slogans and mission statements, self-help books and job postings. We hear about employees leaving positions that lack purpose for ones that are more “meaningful.” But what do purpose and meaning mean, why are they important and how can leaders help people find them at work?

I think of purpose as your “Why?” For a company: Why are we in business and why does it matter? For an individual: Why am I here and how do I make a difference? When team members know and value their “Why?” and their “Why?” aligns with their company’s, they’re likely to find meaning in their work. That may have seemed frivolous in the past, but in today’s environment, it’s a prerequisite for having an engaged, motivated workforce. And perhaps even having a workforce at all!

Surveys by Great Place to Work go as far as to say purpose predicts whether a team member will remain loyal to the company: When millennials find meaning in their job, they’re three times more likely to stay. And it’s not just millennials. CEO of Great Place to Work Michael C. Bush says: “How [millennials] spend their time and who they spend it with matters to them, as it should to all of us. Give them a reason, many reasons, to be proud to work for you—and they’ll stay working for you.”

It’s on us then, as business leaders, to develop and distribute those reasons. Here are some thoughts on how.

Speak your “Why?”

The first step to building an environment where people find purpose and meaning is to articulate your “Why?” It doesn’t have to be a lofty statement about saving the world. It can be a few simple sentences or even your three-year strategic plan and the KPIs and goals within it. The more tangible and relatable the better. Because when your “Why?” is measurable and communicated clearly and frequently, people can track your progress. They can understand and prioritize activities that advance the goals. And they can see where they fit into the shared endeavor and how their work makes a difference.

Once you’ve distilled your “Why?” into succinct language, talk it up. Keep it front and center and use it as your north star in your day-to-day work. Wegmans does a great job of this with their “Values in action” website, newsletter and emails. They state their purpose simply and clearly: Helping people live healthier, better lives through exceptional food. And they empower employees to make decisions that advance the company’s values: community giving, optimal health, DEI and sustainability.

For example, the Wegmans Seafood and Sustainability team has a passion for protecting the environment. They’ve been working on a zero-waste program for years. Recently, the company supported the team in its hunt for an alternative to foam coolers. Management gave them the time and resources to research, develop, pilot and ultimately implement reusable plastic totes to transport fresh seafood, eliminating single-use Styrofoam coolers. It’s that kind of clear, shared purpose that drives over 50,000 Wegmans employees to live their values — and the company’s — every day.

Connect tasks to purpose

After you define your “Why?” the next step is to help team members connect what they do individually to serve the collective purpose. When people see how their contributions make a difference, it makes the hard days worthwhile, the easy days rewarding and most days meaningful.

Think of it this way: If you’re training for a marathon, you have to run a lot. Some days you’ll love it. Other days not so much. You may question why you’re running 20 miles before the sun rises or going to bed just when the party’s getting started. But then you remember your higher purpose: The marathon on your calendar. You can track your progress as your runs get longer, your pace gets faster, your fitness improves. You see the meaning of your daily run. You’re invested in performing your best together with everyone else on the course on race day.

Or imagine a PhD candidate working on their thesis. They may be motivated to persevere when the going gets tough by thoughts of their higher purpose: Defending their dissertation, earning a doctoral degree, launching an important career. Similarly, finding meaning in our jobs day in and day out is easier when we believe in and are inspired by our purpose.

Support supervisors

Not everyone finds meaning in the same things, of course. Even if a team member is 100% on board with your company purpose, different aspects of your culture will resonate with, motivate and inspire them. Consider the “SCARF” model. It describes five domains that reward or threaten and ultimately influence people’s behavior in the workplace: status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness.

Each is important to varying degrees to most of us, but some people might be more driven by status while others are driven by a sense of belonging, for example. That’s why we need to encourage—even require—supervisors to get to know each of their reports and what makes them tick. We can’t expect supervisors to be psychoanalysts, but we can and should give them the time and space to build and maintain relationships.

If they’re managing hybrid and remote teams, your supervisors may need additional training, support and tools to stay connected to their people. Pull out the stops to provide it. Because if they can learn and stay on top of what motivates team members, they can help shape individual experiences. Maybe provide a stretch assignment, mentor or training to help an employee feel challenged, like they’re growing and learning. Or maybe look into AI to automate a tedious task to free a team member up for higher-level thinking.

Vive la différence

In his book Love + Work: How to Find What You Love, Love What You Do, and Do It for the Rest of Your Life, Marcus Buckingham writes “only 18% of people love more than 20% of what they do at work.” And people analytics company Perceptyx reports 30% of employees feel “hopeless, aimless and dispirited” at work. Yikes! That sounds bad, but don’t despair. It doesn’t mean dispirited people will never like their jobs. It might just mean they need help seeing how their contributions impact the greater good and how much the company appreciates their contributions.

It’s not rocket science: People want to use their talents in meaningful ways. They — we — want to know we matter. We want to make a difference. That’s our shared purpose in life, after all.  And it can make all the difference and be the difference between team members who say, “What can the company do for me?” and those who say, “What can I do to help the company and community?”

Lauren Dixon is board chair of Dixon Schwabl + Co., a marketing communications firm, which has  been honored as a Best Place to Work.