Meaningful Work Part 5 – How Leaders Can Create Meaning at Work
So as a company, how do we go about creating meaningful work?
The research shows that there are many things that organisations can do to increase levels of meaning, including values matching, facilitative leadership and role clarity.
We share some practical ideas about how to help people find meaning at work, on an individual level, but also through leadership.
Let’s take a look at how to provide meaningful work for employees.
Watch the first video in the series here:
and the previous video here:
And if you know of anyone who would benefit from this video, please share it with them.
How to provide meaning at work
Welcome to video number five in our series of five videos about meaning at work.
In the earlier videos, we dealt with a range of subject matter associated with meaning at work.
We started off by talking about meaning in life and how that relates to meaning in work.
We talked about meaningful work and work engagement in video number two.
Video number three, we talked about the characteristics of people who find work meaningful.
We gave you some interesting data in video number four, showing you what types of people find their work more meaningful. And we looked at things like gender and levels of remuneration.
Video number five is about how to make work more meaningful.
What we’re hoping to do in this video is to give you some really practical ideas about how you can cause people at work to consider their work to be more meaningful.
The levers of corporate culture
One of the great truisms about organisational culture is that you really have two levers to create corporate culture.
One is the qualities of people that you let in through the front door, and two is how you lead them once they’re in.
We talked about the fact that you can recruit from it, and we showed you some specific details about how you can recruit for meaningful perceptions of work.
The role of psychometric testing
In other words, if people are appropriately smart, they will enjoy the work and find it appropriately challenging.
Highly conscientious people and people with low emotionality, people who are emotionally stable, that tends to cause them to be resilient, and resilience does seem to cause people to find their work more meaningful, largely because they’re not experiencing so much psychological distress from it.
Extroversion from the right jobs, but certainly not gloomy pessimism. Extroverts are a bit more optimistic and positive than introverts in general, but we’re certainly looking for people to find their work meaningful.
We’re certainly looking for people who are not naturally highly gloomy or cynical.
And then a values match for the team and the organisation, and for the team, we mean that values certainly vary from team to team within the one organisation.
But there are some core values that an organisation will stand for.
And clearly, if you want people to find their work meaningful, they have to be in an environment where they find the values of the organisation and the team that they belong to, to be something that they’re comfortable with.
Meaning from the work & the people
These two articles talk about meaning at work in terms of two characteristics (refer to the video) .
The first is foundational meaning. Now what that means is the meaning that can be derived from the job itself, the work I’m doing. Do I find that meaningful?
The clarity of what I’m supposed to be achieving. If there is role clarity, then that helps work to be meaningful.
But the second is relational, which is to say, do I somehow derive meaning from the people that I interact with at work?
So, for instance, if I’m working with people who share similar values and concerns to me, then I’m much more likely to find my work meaningful than if I’m working with people with whom I don’t feel a sense of sympathico, a sense of relationship.
Also, the nature of the interactions that you’re seeing around you.
If you’re getting good positive interactions and you find people to be helpful and kind and supportive, of course, you’re going to find the work that you do more meaningful in that context, than let’s say people are squabbling or fighting or something of that nature.
Five factors that affect meaning
So let’s talk about how you can increase meaning, and we’ll start off with the job itself.
Role Clarity. What is this job actually for?
And I’m going to take you through a thing called outcome based job definition, which will help you to understand what a contemporary psychology perspective is on how to create role clarity.
But certainly it’s impossible to have meaning in your work unless you know what the job is for and what it needs to achieve.
Variety. If people have a stack of variety in their work, of course, they find it more meaningful than if they’re doing the same thing day after day after day. Variety is a big contributor to meaning at work.
Autonomy. We talked in earlier videos about the importance of empowerment, and we’ll talk further about this because when people have high levels of autonomy, they tend to find their work more meaningful than if, for instance, they’re just simply obeying.
Learning. Employers regularly tell me that what they’re looking for is a workforce that’s high in passion. Passion is a kind of an individual motivation, which is heavily driven by learning.
If you are learning, you are much more likely to be passionate. The human brain evolved to learn.
So if you think about the context of the most satisfying work that you’ve ever done in your life, think back to a time where you’re really loving the work that you are doing.
I’ll bet that that was a time when you were learning a lot.
Appropriate levels of challenge. And what we mean by that is you’re looking for people to have the right challenge.
In other words, challenges they can cope with and which will ideally stretch them. But it’s not so much of a challenge that is going to damage them or cause them to be negatively stressed.
And rewards which are fair. Money and recognition. Money being an important driver of dissatisfaction, money is not much of a driver of satisfaction.
That’s what the research perspective on dollars is, that when people are paid appropriately, paying them more doesn’t really increase their levels of wellbeing, very highly at all.
But if people are being paid unfairly, which is to say, I am doing this job and the person next to me is doing the same job but being paid more, or even the person down the street in another company, we seem to be doing very similar jobs, and they’re paid more, then people will become dissatisfied very quickly from money.
But then beyond money, there’s the question of recognition. People feel meaning in their work when they get accurate, authentic and helpful recognition of the work that they’re doing. So it’s not just about dollars.
It’s about the psychosocial reward of recognition where people are paying us respect for having done good work.
How to create role clarity
I want to talk a little bit about role clarity, and the diagram (refer to the video) that you see in front of you now is a diagram which expresses a thing called outcome definition at work.
Employees really need to know why they’re doing the work that they’re doing.
If you look at the job descriptions which exist across the world, most of them are lists of tasks, and in fact, in research into job definition, it’s surprising how ineffective most job definitions are at doing their job.
So we have a list of tasks. It doesn’t seem to increase the levels of clarity of people very much at all. So the typical job description, which would have a list of responsibilities or duties or whatever.
What really creates clarity for people is outcomes. In other words, the outcomes that I need to achieve.
And I’ll give you a practical example. In our practise, we deal with human resources roles quite regularly.
Some of our clients are human resources practitioners, and certainly very often we’re asked to comment on the construction of human resources roles.
Now, one of the things that shows the difference between a task-based job definition and an outcome-based job definition is that very few human resources roles have, as part of a traditional process of job definition, customer service listed.
But what is it that gets you promoted if you’re a human resources manager and what is it that causes you difficulty? It’s whether the customers are satisfied in what you do.
So an outcomes perspective on job definition would have customer satisfaction front and centre as part of the definition of a role of a human resources practitioner.
By the way, not just human resources. Many corporate roles have internal customer satisfaction as a key driver. And so defining those outcomes and measuring them, that’s what gives people a sense of clarity about their roles.
The ideal number of outcomes
But imagine if you think of a job definition which has 30, 40, 50 – I’ve seen job definitions with 100 – accountabilities in them in terms of things that need to be done versus three, four, five outcomes that the job needs to achieve.
Well, you can see which is more meaningful because the outcomes are what the job is for. The tasks or responsibilities are what the job does, and that’s nowhere near as motivational as a set of outcomes are.
So if you want to increase the perception of people that the work is meaningful, then let’s agree with them what the outcomes are.
And so, in effect, clarity at the organisational level is where you have real world outcomes at the organisational level, at the group level, at the branch level and at the individual job level.
Now, we’re saying clarity of purpose is five to seven. You can have less, by the way, at SACS, we have four, but five to seven.
Well, the human brain can accommodate somewhere around seven to nine chunks of information in most people.
And so if you have too many outcomes as part of a role definition, then it becomes like any other job definition. And that is that people forget about it.
And you can tell the job definitions usually don’t work that well because when people look at them is often when somebody’s quit.
And then they go to the Z drive of the computer, they pull out the job definition and what they immediately do is say, well, gee, this is out of date. So that suggests that it hasn’t been a living, breathing document.
So role clarity has served best by having an agreed set of outcomes and ways of measuring them. And I think that if you construct this the right way, we’ve not found that jobs need more than about five to seven outcomes to be defined.
If they do seek to serve more than, let’s say, seven meaningful outcomes, then I think it’s evidence that the job needs to be redesigned to make it more doable.
Five to seven outcomes creates clarity for people.
Meaning through relationships
Let’s talk about increasing meaning through relationships at work. This is the relational aspect of work meaning.
It comes down very heavily to the behaviours that I see every day.
Leaders encouraging good behaviours and redirecting bad behaviours. Do they behave well themselves? Is the organisation achieving, do leaders support and reward achievement and redirect non-achievement? Where is the organisation going? Do we want to come on that journey?
So clearly, that depends very heavily on the organisation having clear statements of where it’s heading.
And certainly at the organisational level, that’s where it’s a really valuable thing to say to your employees, these are the outcomes that this organisation seeks to achieve.
Is the organisation ethical and purposeful? Does it care about wellbeing, including safety? And are there good rituals, celebrations, recognitions, inclusion in decisions?
Rituals and meaning
Have you noticed that virtually every part of the human race has rituals of some sort?
The army has rituals, politics. If you think of the various governments around the world, they have rituals. You have informal rituals in social groups like we all go to a certain place for dinner or we catch up once a month or whatever. Those are rituals.
And it turns out that people find more meaning in their work. If they have good rituals, those rituals can construct meaning for people and make people feel a relational strength in what they’re doing at work.
Very powerful stuff.
What causes wellbeing at work?
Let’s talk about what causes wellbeing at work.
And this is a very important diagram (refer to the video), because what it’s saying is that things that are proximal, which means close to me – distal means things that are a long way away from me – things that are proximal to me have an enormous impact on my sense of well being at work, of which meaning at work is a very important thing.
About 80% of my well being, according to Cotton and Hart, going back some years ago, comes from the immediate team that I belong to, and the organisation contributes only a contextual kind of an effect.
In other words, it doesn’t have anywhere near as much of an effect on my wellbeing as the immediate team that I belong to.
So a summary of what I’ve just showed you is that culture is local. Culture depends very much on the group to which you belong.
So if you’re you are part of a thousand person organisation, and you’re in a team of five people. That team of five people will affect 80% of your wellbeing, whereas 20% of your wellbeing will be attributed more to the corporate environment.
The corporate environment, of course, can sponsor a positive and meaningful work environment, but really, it comes down to local circumstances.
So that’s why you can have extremely different levels of wellbeing in teams which are doing similar work side by side, using similar equipment, because it’s down to the local environment – job, team and leader – to drive that level of positivity and that level of meaning.
I want to talk about a form of leadership which is called transformational leadership.
Transformational leadership is something that’s been very heavily researched, and transformational leaders tend to have employees who find their work to be more meaningful.
They also show passion, authenticity, energy and vision setting, and employees therefore, see workers being more worthwhile and rich in purpose.
Just to talk about what we mean by a transformational leader. This term arose probably about a decade or so ago now. And the idea of a transformational leader is somebody who leads with what’s called idealised influence.
What that really means is that they have a clarity of purpose and they lead by example. You can get away from the terminology of idealised influence if you want. But I think leading by example and being purpose-driven is what we’re talking about here.
Inspirational motivation – again, if you want to simplify that, look at it in the sense of makes it clear to employees about where we’re heading and shows enthusiasm for that destination.
So creating a clarity for people about what their job means, creating a clarity for people about where the team is heading, creating clarity for people where the organisation is heading. That’s what we mean by inspirational motivation.
Intellectual stimulation is really all about learning, where people have a chance to learn new things on the job.
And then individualised consideration, where the leader is supportive of the person that they’re dealing with, that they give them individual concern. They express an interest in their circumstances, they seek to develop them they seek to be helpful to them.
In effect, they seek to flex as much as is practicable to ensure that the employee’s needs are met. That’s an individualised consideration approach.
This is a transformational leader, and I wanted to show you some research from SACS.
Leadership behaviours that create meaning
This is a project that was undertaken a few years ago now, but what we did is we measured the levels of engagement and wellbeing of about 2700 people across Australia and New Zealand.
And we measured a bunch of leader behaviours and these leader behaviours (refer to the video) , you’ll see, there’s a range of things here about learning about being supportive to people, about teamwork, about empowering people, creating clarity, about both behaviours and performance, and celebrating success but being optimistic and positive.
And so this mathematics here (refer to the video) is a thing called the multiple regression and what we’re seeking to do is to see if we can predict this engagement from these leadership behaviours.
And the answer is yes, we could. It was highly statistically significant as a study.
But we were also able to identify the four key behaviours that drove people’s levels of engagement, and in fact, they are a very, very close facsimile of what is called transformational leadership.
Facilitative leadership – four key behaviours
We call this facilitative leadership – the two terms are often used interchangeably – being a facilitative leader is certainly a transformational style of leadership.
But the ranking of these four most important behaviours is really informative (refer to the video) .
And the first thing is about empowering people. So good leaders empower their staff, which means that they give them the opportunity to make decisions about things which are important at work.
The second is optimism and positivity, and I want to dwell on that just for a moment.
Corporate culture – good or bad? A good corporate culture is one where good behaviours, good experiences, predominate markedly over bad behaviours or bad experiences.
And the estimate of a ratio appears to be about five or six to one, which is to say, if you have five or six good behaviours for every bad behaviour, what you’re going to end up with is a positive corporate culture.
So just think of that as a leader, you need to be optimistic and positive in order to engender this kind of environment for your staff, and that will help them to find their work meaningful.
Now, what do I mean by optimistic and positive? I don’t mean unrealistic where you say, don’t worry, everything’s going to be fine. It’s more a sense of confidence and optimism about us as a team and you as an employee. I believe you can do this.
I will help you if you need coaching, guidance, support, let me know and I’ll do that. But I believe you can do it.
And not only that, whatever challenges life throws us, I believe we as a team, can cope with that and can do a good job under those circumstances and can have high levels of wellbeing.
So good leaders are optimistic and positive in that sense, and that certainly helps create engagement, but it also helps create a sense of meaning.
The third is about supportive leadership and supportive leadership, as we’ve described earlier in individualised consideration, as it was described in transformational leadership, supportive leadership is about being kind to people, about taking their needs into account, about wanting to help and support them, in a job sense as well as in a life sense.
Which is to say, if somebody needs time to attend a personal event, yes, that’s individual support, but as well as that focusing on helping the person to grow their career, to help them build their skills.
That’s the kind of thing which is a really powerful form of meaning generation leadership behaviours.
And the fourth one is about helping people to learn. And once more, that was also mentioned in transformational leadership.
So I think you can see the link between transformational leadership and facilitative leadership.
We’d like to use the term facilitative leadership because facilitative leadership suggests and implies what a leader needs to do in order to become a transformational leader.
So we tend to promote this as facilitative leadership.
If you lead as a facilitator, that will give you the opportunity to create optimum levels of meaning in the work of your employees.
Types of leadership
Here is a diagram that deals with this (refer to the video). It’s really saying that leaders can be top-down and in fact, need to be top-down.
There are times when leaders must say to an individual or to a group. This is what we will do, the decision’s made.
There are also times when leaders will consult their staff, which is to say, ask their opinion and then go back to the office and make a decision about what to do.
But good leaders and leaders that create a lot of meaning are often leaders who are facilitative in their style.
So a facilitative leader doesn’t make the decision. A facilitative leader runs a process, facilitates a process, where the staff make a decision. And the staff might make the decision by means of majority votes, let’s say.
What that looks like in a practical sense, is that the leader might get people together in a room, either a physical room or a virtual room, and run a process where they consider a particular issue.
And so the issue could be an opportunity, like we want to achieve a certain thing or the issue could be a problem that we need to overcome.
But the idea is that the leader asks people to break into small groups to consider solutions, and then the groups present to the larger group the solutions that they’ve come up with.
So it’s like a brainstorming activity. And basically what you’re trying to do is to come up with as many creative ideas as possible.
But once those ideas are created, what you then do is lead through people through a process, Facilitate people through a process, where they consider those ideas and, in effect, vote for the ideas that they care most about, that they think will work best.
And then the leader, who is a true facilitative leader, supports somebody within the group to lead the implementation of whatever has been decided and also will help pull together a team of other people to help this person, in effect, to roll out the solution.
That’s true facilitative leadership.
The effect of leadership on engagement and wellbeing
What we know is that levels of engagement and wellbeing are lowest when people are entirely top-down, it gets a little better when people consult, but then facilitative leadership has the greatest impact in increasing levels of engagement.
But you can imagine a work group where people are given the opportunity to decide important matters in this way. You get a couple of really important benefits.
Personally, what I believe is that you end up with better solutions if you do this. Facilitative leadership does tend to create good solutions, solutions that a leader wouldn’t have necessarily thought of themselves.
Secondly, it creates a sense of teamwork because people are coming together and solving problems. And of all the team-building activities that are available, making things better at work is the most powerful. It will be massages, bungee jumping, whitewater rafting.
Because the job is proximal, whereas all of that out of stuff is distal and they might enhance an interpersonal relationship, but what this does is that it enhances a work relationship and that tends to lead to improvements that are enduring, sustainable.
In addition to that, when people do this, the leader will find that they tend to come to her with solutions. The staff come with solutions rather than with problems, and that, of course, creates a sense of greater meaning.
It’s appropriately stressful in the sense that there’s a challenge in coming up with this stuff. But the staff are part of the solution. But of course, you can see they’re being valued.
And of course, it’s a very optimistic thing for a leader to do because they’re showing look, I have faith in you as a group in coming up with good solutions.
So that’s facilitative leadership and how it can contribute to meaning.
How to create meaningful work
To draw some conclusions from all of this.
Firstly, people need meaning in their lives. One of the things that we know and this, as I said in video number one, this is something that people have been pursuing an answer to for thousands of years.
What is the meaning of life? Well, people need meaning in their life to feel optimum levels of wellbeing.
But as well as that people need meaning in their work. We spend a lot of time at work and meaning is important. It’s good for employees and employers.
In other words, when people find their work meaningful, they are happier and more productive.
But as well as that they give their employers better volumes of work and better quality of work, and that’s good for everybody.
Certain people are more likely to find meaning in their work. These people are also likely to be good hires in other respect.
So we dealt with that in one of the earlier videos about recruiting for meaning, and you can increase people’s meaning at work by looking into the job that they do and focusing on things like variety, focusing on things like role clarity, focusing on things like empowerment, and also doing all of those things tends to improve what’s called the relational aspect of meaning at work because it will build better interpersonal relationships between employees.
And through transformational or facilitative leadership, leaders can learn to be effective in creating meaning at work.
Thanks very much for watching this series of videos or perhaps just this one.
If you’re interested in any of the other subject matter, all you have to do is follow the links to access the earlier videos.
Watch the first video in this series to find out more about meaning at work:
Or watch the previous video about meaningful work:
And if you’d like some help creating more meaningful work for your employees, contact us to discuss our Workforce Planning services.