Creating meaning at work

How good leaders make a job about more than a paycheck

A positive work climate with a sense of belonging enhances employee motivation and an important component is a leader who helps people see meaning and purpose amid their daily work tasks.

How many people do you know who go through the motions when it comes to work? They do the minimum required and keep their heads down. They survive in the workplace, but don’t thrive and are not your high performers. Contrast that with those who are fully engaged, ready to take on new tasks and always do more than expected. What is the difference?

Every person is unique, of course, and brings their own history and values to the workplace, but often a big factor is the quality of leadership. Research shows that leadership quality is the No. 1 factor in whether people feel engaged at work, and Gallup reports that only 34% of Americans say they actually are. That is a pretty clear connection.

Yes, most of us need to make a living and take home a paycheck, but work can (and should) be about a lot more than simply that.

Even people with unpleasant jobs are able to appreciate their work. A New York sewage worker told The New York Times with pride, “It’s enough to serve the public.” A May 2019 National Geographic article, “Finding Dignity in a Dirty Job,” recounts the story of a Haitian man who climbs into pit toilets to clean them out by hand, eager to be photographed because he is “proud of what he does and wants to be respected.”

Derek Thompson wrote in The Atlantic that, “for the college-educated elite, work has morphed into a religious identity—promising identity, transcendence, and community, but failing to deliver.”

Emily Esfahani Smith, author of “The Power of Meaning: Finding Fulfillment in a World Obsessed with Happiness,” laments that university focus is now on career success, but also tells the story of a hospital janitor who sees himself as helping people to heal.

I am not suggesting that more menial work creates higher satisfaction. I am saying that when people find meaning and purpose in their work, they are more fulfilled and ultimately more productive, even when they have a difficult job. And leaders can make a difference!

In his TED talk, Barry Schwarz argues that leaders who foster discretion, autonomy, respect and learning help workers “find nobility in work.” A short-sighted approach that focuses exclusively on “getting the work done” isn’t enough if you want highly engaged employees!

The quality of relationships at work can have a real impact, too. I am not talking about small talk around the water cooler but about substantive conversations with quality listening and respectful engagement. How much time are you investing to get to know your staff and colleagues, to understand their aspirations and who they are as people?

Author Susan Fowler talks about leaders needing “to attribute meaning to the madness” of the fast-paced daily work environment and helping people find meaning behind the metrics of profits and balance sheets. She argues that external motivators like salary and benefits, while important, are far less effective tools than internal staff motivation.

Freek Vermeulen writes in the Harvard Business Review that creating meaning is less about promoting lofty purpose than what he calls “local meaning.” He says people experience a sense of purpose by “understanding who the recipients and beneficiaries are of their work, and receiving feedback that their efforts are valued.”

Leadership guru Jim Kouzes recalls Studs Terkel’s classic book “Working,” in which he interviewed a fireman who says, “I can look back and say, ‘I helped put out a fire. I helped save somebody.’ It shows something I did on this earth.” Kouzes hopes that leaders can also say “I did something on this earth” by bringing meaning and purpose to their workplaces.

For further thought: How many of your staff are getting-by-and-surviving as opposed to engaged-and-thriving? How can you apply your leadership skills to increase employee engagement and foster a climate where work has purpose? List three specific actions you could take that would create a more meaningful workplace, increasing employee satisfaction and productivity.

We each have an extraordinary opportunity to make a difference in people’s lives. Don’t underestimate your impact!

Douglass P. Teschner, founder of Growing Leadership LLC, can be contacted at

Categories: Workplace Advice