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How to Create Meaning at Work When the Outcome Isn’t Always Meaningful

The answer lies in a simple question: Does your company help employees become better people?

(originally published by Booz & Company)

There’s a lot of talk these days about the importance of finding meaning at work. Tammy Erickson, who writes about millennial employees and studies their sources of motivation, has gone so far as to declare that for many younger workers, “meaning is the new money.”

This is not surprising, given that millennials are entering a job market where employers expect an extraordinary commitment. In today’s demanding and ceaselessly competitive workplace, people not only have to work extremely hard, they also need to bring creativity and insight to their efforts. (As Peter Drucker noted, that’s what a knowledge economy is all about.) And while racking up the hours requires only discipline and stamina, creativity and insight demand hearts-and-minds commitment. It’s tough to imagine anyone coming up with an innovative solution to a problem he or she doesn’t really care about. This requires a spur beyond the merely monetary.

People say that “meaning is the new money,” but the truth may be a bit more complicated.

“Meaning” is often assumed to be that spur. Business writers and consultants who focus on the importance of meaning usually urge people to find an explicit connection between the output of their work and their sense of purpose in life. The idea is that you should have a passion for the product or service you’re engaged in offering the world. If not, you won’t be able to contribute at the highest level.

My friend Marshall Goldsmith, one of the world’s top leadership coaches, believes this approach can be phony and misleading. “Who’s going to find meaning in making dog food?” he asks.

As a wildly devoted dog owner, I happen to think that producing great dog food is a particularly noble endeavor, but I certainly understand what Marshall means. Most for-profit businesses operate in a highly transactional world. As a result, many solid, decently paid jobs––even many terrific jobs—don’t offer much in the way of big-picture meaning. Does that mean people can’t engage with such work on a profound level? This has always seemed to be a real conundrum.

Say your company produces trade shows––big trade shows, great trade shows—all over the world. Trade shows can be wonderful, fun, inspiring, and cool (or the opposite), but even if you love your job, you’re going to have a tough time motivating yourself by trying to find a connection between running solid trade shows and the ultimate purpose of your life. You can read your company’s mission statement all you want (“we help our clients showcase the best in products and services”), but it’s pretty unlikely to make your heart sing or to inspire you to shout, “Yes! That’s why I’m on earth!” Yet the demanding, and at times all-consuming, nature of your work may require a bit more in terms of motivation than the simple desire to build up your bank balance, add another bay to the garage, or even trot the length of the Great Wall of China. So where do you find that extra spur?

A blog post by my colleague Bill Wiersma, author of The Power of Professionalism, helped me get a handle on this. Bill recently interviewed employees at one of the world’s best-managed companies about what makes their experience at work so valuable and compelling. The company is known for instilling high morale in people at every level while also granting them a fair degree of autonomy. The result is a kind of holy grail of corporate management: consistently high performance based on sustainably strong engagement among employees.

Bill was clear to note that the company in question “isn’t solving world hunger,” or otherwise offering the kind of product or service that people find intrinsically meaningful. Rather, it manufactures a commodity-like agricultural product––not all that different from Marshall’s dog food example. Yet the employees he interviewed spoke about their work as profoundly meaningful, and it was this perception that lay at the heart of their engagement.

Bill wondered how they made the connection. Then one of the men he was interviewing said quite simply, “You know, I’m a better person for having worked here.

To me, this was a big aha moment.

Bill’s interlocutor was saying that meaning in work isn’t vested in the product or outcome, but rather in how the daily experience of doing your work helps you develop as a human being. By exercising autonomy, focusing on excellent execution, and collaborating with colleagues in an atmosphere characterized by mutual respect, the man was able to use his experience at work to hone and develop what was best in himself.

Real engagement, then, doesn’t flow from trying to convince yourself that what your company produces will change the world for the better–– a fairly fruitless quest for many. Rather, meaning must be sought in how the scope of our work allows us to reach our highest potential.

Which is why millennials may have it wrong—instead of meaning, wholehearted engagement might actually be the new money.

Sally Helgesen

Sally Helgesen is the author of seven books on leadership, most recently How Women Rise: Break the 12 Habits Holding You Back from Your Next Raise, Promotion, or Job, coauthored with Marshall Goldsmith. She delivers workshops and keynote addresses around the world and has been a contributor to s+b since 2005. 

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