A fundamental part of the Universal Human Experience is to search for meaning. We all look for significance, a deeper purpose for ourselves and what we love.

But what does that have to do with business?

The traditional view of work is that it’s what you do when you’re not living your life. You get a paycheck, which you can go out and spend on things that are enjoyable and what truly matters.

That’s actually a pretty recent development that took hold during the Industrial Revolution. We’ve lost the sense that work has meaning for its own sake. Not just for what you produce for others, but that work itself can have honor and purpose.

As a business leader, your role is to help your people connect to the group meaning — your purpose and mission and goals — as well as the individual meaning — their individual job roles.

Both are absolutely necessary.

We all create individual job descriptions: “this is what your job is.” And even if it’s unwritten, people learn what is required, what pleases the organization, and what they’re rewarded for. But that’s mostly treating them as soulless black boxes to produce work.

You wouldn’t do that to your loved ones. Your kids aren’t part of the family because they’re small units of accomplishments, just as your parents aren’t merely producers of income and a home. Your family is family because we all need love and support while going through the challenges of becoming fully human.

In the same way, your employees shouldn’t just be producers of work in trade for the paycheck. They crave to contribute to something important, to make a difference individually and collectively.

That’s where the group’s goals, mission and purpose come into play. They set the direction for everyone. But more important, they establish the connection between what the meaning is for everyone, and how each individual’s contribution supports that.

It doesn’t matter if “meaning” is in terms of happy customers, or changing the world, or working together as a powerful team. Ideally, you’ll have elements of all of those.

We’ve missed a crucial point, though: people won’t see meaning until there’s some indication that their individual work actually matters.

Imagine that my job is to crank out widgets all day. But I never know how many I did, whether I did a good job of cranking, and whether I’m meeting expectations. My boss gives me no feedback.

You can imagine how worthless I’d feel. I don’t know if I’m making a difference to anyone at all, and I’ll probably be stressed that I’ll lose my job because they’ll figure out I’m doing nothing worthwhile.

It’s not a big stretch of the imagination, because a huge number of workers have exactly these feelings. Even when the boss thinks she’s giving useful direction and feedback, they’re not really hearing it.

What establishes meaning in an individual’s work is getting useful feedback about how their contribution is making a difference, and learning from it. That learning step is when you know that they’re making the connection between the big picture and their individual efforts, and they see how they can improve.

That’s precisely why we need to promote and recognize learning.

From the employee’s point of view, the ability to learn and adapt is the path to understanding meaning. I do X and things improve. For me individually, and for us all.

Therefore, I now see a reason why I should care about my job. It’s starting to matter.


This article was first published in BizWest.

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