Leaders Drive Meaningful Work Cultures (or Not)

“It is impossible to have a great life unless it is a meaningful life. And it is very difficult to have a meaningful life without meaningful work.”

Jim Collins shares this insight in the final paragraph of Good to Great. He describes meaningful work as “creat[ing] something of intrinsic excellence that makes a contribution.”

Let’s face it. Who doesn’t want others to feel their work is excellent and that it makes a contribution beyond their team to the broader organization, customers, even society at large? Catherine Bailey, Business and Management Professor, University of Sussex, Brighton, UK, and Adrian Madden, Senior Lecturer in the Human Resources and Organizational Behavior Department, University of Greenwich Business School, London, address this head on in Sloan Review. They write, “Researchers have shown meaningfulness to be more important to employees than any other aspect of work, including pay and rewards, opportunities for promotion, or working conditions.”

Meaningful work is different for everyone. It is rooted in employees’ intrinsic motivation – each person’s unique combination of values, passions, and innate strengths. When employees get to put their values into action, fulfill their passions, and leverage their strengths, work becomes the meaningful expression of their personality.

Yet, many employees struggle to discover the right organization where they can do meaningful work. It’s one thing to aspire to meaningful work. It’s quite another matter to identify an organizational culture where they can freely enact their values, passions, and strengths. The best way to assess organizational culture for meaning is to check out the behaviors and practices of leaders.

Leaders: the Key to Meaningful Work

Leaders shape organizational culture, so they have the power to generate meaningful work environments. In a 2016 New York Times op-ed piece, the 14th Dalai Lama and Arthur C. Brooks assert, “Leaders need to recognize that a compassionate society must create a wealth of opportunities for meaningful work, so that everyone who is capable of contributing can do so.”

So, how exactly can leaders do this? Bailey and Madden advise them to “create an ecosystem that encourages people to thrive.”

Such meaningful work cultures are built on four essential elements, which allow employees to integrate their values, passions, and strengths:                                  

*This element is identified by Bailey and Madden

Meaningful Mission

Leaders set the tone from the top, and it’s up to them to articulate an organizational mission that stands for something more than profitability or shareholder value.  Growing the business or making money are not inherently meaningful missions that easily get employees jazzed. Financial goals need to serve some larger purpose, like delivering high quality health care or creating software that combats cyber attacks or producing drugs that save lives.

Robert Goffee, Emeritus Professor of Organizational Behavior, London Business School, and Gareth Jones, Visiting Professor at the IE Business School, Madrid, explain this in Harvard Business Review. They state, “It has become commonplace to assert that organizations need shared meaning…But, shared meaning is about more than fulfilling your mission statement – it’s about forging and maintaining powerful connections between personal and organizational values.”

It’s also critical for leaders to express mission statements in concrete ways that resonate with employees. Bailey and Madden give an example of one waste collection company that put “pictures of the items…made from recycled waste on the side of the garbage trucks” to illustrate the value of recycling to workers. It doesn’t get more graphic than that.

People-focused Values

When leaders espouse organizational values that honor their employees, they create meaningful work cultures that allow employees to emotionally connect to their work. Jann Freed, Leadership Development and Change Management Consultant with the Genysys Group, believes that such values include:

  • Treating employees as people first and workers second
  • Work-life integration
  • Nurturing the whole self at work – mind, body, spirit
  • Trust
  • Honesty
  • Authenticity
  • Compassion
  • Forgiveness
  • Gratitude
  • Employee empowerment

People-focused Practices

Leaders enact these values through people-focused practices. At the level of individual employees, this means:

  • Addressing employee differences – Wise leaders know how to connect the organizational mission to individual team members’ unique values, passions, and strengths through development plans, mentoring, coaching, training, and special assignments. Emphasis is placed on enhancing innate talents, not propping up weaknesses.
  • Engaging employees in their work – The essence of engagement is empowerment. When employees get to own their work – methods and results – they thrive. Henrik Bresman, INSEAD Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior, believes that leaders engage employees by expecting them to enact organizational values, solve problems, innovate, and make decisions.
  • Effectively rewarding employeesBailey and Madden point out that fundamental to rewarding employees is regularly recognizing, acknowledging and appreciating their contributions, and connecting this type of reward back to their efforts. Of course, formal rewards such as pay increases, bonuses, and promotions are also powerful when they’re based on achievements.

At the level of interactions among employees, some of the most impactful people-focused practices include:

  • Fostering employee connections to each other – This happens when “leaders create a supportive, respectful and inclusive work climate among colleagues, between employees and managers, and between organizational staff and work beneficiaries,” Bailey and Madden observe.
  • Unleashing the flow of information – In meaningful work cultures, leaders empower employees at all levels to openly exchange information, even when things are going wrong. Healthy cultures depend on what Bailey and Madden call “radical honesty.”

Meaningful Job Roles and Tasks

Finally, leaders can help their employees extract meaning from their day-to-day work life through well designed job roles and tasks. They can ensure that job roles support the broader organizational mission. Entrepreneur and writer Ryan Robinson points out that leaders can also create job role complexity and autonomy to challenge and engage employees. And, Goffee and Jones encourage leaders to articulate the explicit purpose of the individual tasks that comprise job roles.

The Winners? Everyone!

There is no perfect organization. But, leaders – collaborating with their employees – can continuously enhance organizational culture for increased meaning. Everyone stands to win. Employees get to do meaningful work. Organizations and their customers benefit through great results achieved by a passionate, energized workforce.

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