Finding “Meaning” At Work: Is It Realistic To Saddle Employers With That Too?

Written by Mike Shapiro | | September 7, 2017

A new multimedia presentation in the New York Times, paid for and posted by MetLife, says employers should work hard to understand the deeper motivations of today’s workers and that when they do, they’ll find they want more meaning and purpose in their work. And then it goes on to suggest it’s the company’s responsibility to find and infuse and integrate those things into every employee’s workday, every day.

Now that’s a pretty tall order. It sounds suspiciously like workers are actually being encouraged to expect a new kind of care-taking from their employers. But is it a reasonable expectation? If it’s not, it’s going to result in a lot of unnecessary disappointment and consequent job-hopping and disruption of what could have been some promising careers.

Because workers wanting and expecting something from their work experience doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the employer’s responsibility to provide it.

The “meaning” a worker might find in doing a job is likely to differ markedly from person to person. No employer could ever satisfy the needs of all its employees with some kind of blanket, one-size-fits-all “meaning” statement, policy or program. (Imagine a new dashboard measure called something like Meaning Index, with the CEO reporting regularly on progress toward the latest Meaning Objective.)

Workers look for lots of different things on the job that might qualify as personally meaningful: Good things like service to the community and the world and taking care of the environment, and some not-so-good things too, like an opportunity to complain, a chance to take credit for someone else’s ideas and a way to use the cover of team membership to slack off and let others pull the laboring oar.

Wait. What? That last part sounds ridiculous, right? But think about it. Why is there no clamoring for employer support for these nasty things? Because employees who have this kind of personal need seem to do fine on their own, making this kind of workplace mischief to satisfy it.

What about purpose? The very existence of the company provides all the purpose anyone should need to bring their best efforts to the job. Every company has a purpose: To serve its customers and to make money doing it. It’s that company purpose employees should be getting behind rather than asking their employer to give them another one that better suits their personal preferences. The employment is, after all, primarily about the company and its customers.

If employees want something more from their workday, like finding meaning and purpose in the work, the responsibility for that rests on their shoulders.

Of course, the employer can help by showing them how to do it, providing examples and opportunities and, when they feel the pressure of employees’ expectations and demands for something more personally satisfying, gently turning the responsibility for that back to the employees where it belongs.

A healthy workplace requires that employees have a clear understanding of what they can reasonably expect the company to do for them and what they have to do for themselves. And in a previous post, we discussed this expectation as a critical job skill candidates should bring to the table, and gave suggestions for interview questions a hiring manager can ask to surface that attitude.

Employees can justifiably look to the employer to provide work that serves customers and helps the company grow. But finding a personally significant meaning in that effort is clearly the job of each and every worker who shows up every day for work.