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Meaning is very quickly becoming the most powerful driver of engagement, fulfilment and performance in the workplace.

The movement towards meaning has been bubbling away for some time, but it’s still pretty misunderstood. A few years ago a major report from the Career Advisory Board made a couple of eye-opening findings. When asked, managers felt the most important factor for millennials was securing a high-paying job. But when that question was asked to millennials themselves - money was secondary. For millennials, meaningful work was the single most important factor in defining a successful career.

The obvious point here is that as leaders we can often be way off the mark when it comes to understanding what really drives and motivates our teams. Make no mistake about it, meaning matters. It matters for sales teams, it matters for creative teams, it matters for high performers, and it most definitely matters for leaders.

So, for the next few minutes, I’d love for you to consider with me just how important amplifying a real sense of meaning in your team is, and what you can do to increase it.

First - the traditional proving of the point with stats:

Money Matters Less Than Meaning

Accenture found 70% of graduates wanted to work in a positive environment, even if that meant taking a drop in earnings.

Takeaway: Offering a better pay-cheque no longer cuts it. (Not even close. Particularly when one Net Impact study found that more than half of all millennials would even take a 15% pay cut to work somewhere they believed in). To win the war for talent, employers will need to focus on more than just the salary. Offering a decent pay-cheque may get talent to the table, but increasingly – culture, benefits and reputation will be the thing that keeps them around.

Meaning Makes a Measurable Difference

HBR and The Energy Project found that that finding meaning in work makes employees 2.2 times more satisfied with their jobs, 2.8 times more likely to stay at the company, and 93% more engaged.

Takeaway: Meaning is not an intangible ‘nice to have’, but a core strategy for amplifying the engagement and effectiveness of teams in any organisation.

Most Businesses Don’t Meet the Meaning Making Needs of Millennials

Deloitte found that 70% of all millennials plan to work for themselves at some point in the future.

Takeaway: Over 2/3rds of our workforce see themselves leaving the ‘traditional’ office environment. Why? They want things like autonomy, creativity and meaning - and most companies aren’t giving it to them. We need to start shifting our focus – increasing the emphasis on areas like intrapreneurship and encouraging staff to own projects. As Deloitte CEO Barry Salzberg puts it: “To attract and retain talent business needs to show Millennials it is innovative and in tune with their world-view”.

Pretty clear picture already. Point proven about the business value of the critical business imperative of amplifying a real sense of meaning in your team? But wait for it, here is one more statistic that should absolutely not be overlooked:

Meaning is Massively Missing

HBR found that more than half (55%) of all workers lack any real sense of meaning or significance at work.

So - despite knowing how important meaning is to people and how crucial to business success it is, it seems that collectively, we are having a pretty hard time getting it right.

The obvious question at this stage is to ask: what are the biggest levers to pull to create more meaning for your teams?

(Glad you asked). Here are the 7 Pillars of Meaning that I present in my ‘Meaning Maker’ keynotes.

They are research validated and real life tested. Let’s cover each pillar in brief right now:

1. Mastery - Your team wants to get good at what they do. There is something deep within us that drives us to keep getting better. When you tap into this urge to improve, it sets off a domino effect of emotions that include pride, satisfaction, ambition and dedication. On the flip side, if people aren’t given an opportunity to learn, develop and get better at their work – well, it’s a surefire recipe for demotivation and disengagement.

2. Autonomy - Your team needs to feel in charge of their own life and professional destiny. Thankfully we’ve moved on from the old days when ‘command and conquer’ was seen as the best strategy for effective leadership, but we’ve still got a whole lot of room for improvement in the way we coach and empower our teams. When you can better align the level of autonomy you give to your teams with the level of experience and skill they have, you will advance the sense of meaning they get from their work.

3. Purpose - Your team wants to feel that there is a point to what they are doing. You can help your teams find purpose in what they are doing by asking “beyond money, why do we do what we do?”. This question will get to the “how’s and why’s” of what you do which so often sit behind the scenes (just out of useful sight for amplifying a sense of meaning!)

4. Connections - Your team is hardwired for connection, and craves real relationships. The National Bureau of Economic Research, in a study involving 5,000 participants, found that doubling your group of friends has the same effect on your wellbeing and work related satisfaction as increasing your income by 50%. As an organisation you have to be asking yourself “what are we doing to foster connection within the teams that show up to work for us each day?”.

5. Contributions - Your team wants to give to something that is bigger than them. Taking time to connect the dots between what each of your team members does and how it contributes to the company and customers they serve is one of the greatest (and easiest) levers you can pull when it comes to engagement and motivation at work.

6. Challenges - Your team needs to test themselves and find out what they are made of. For peak performance and a real sense of meaning at work, we need challenges. The best performers know that embracing discomfort and stepping beyond familiar habits and routines causes you to stretch and grow and experience higher levels of success and fulfilment at work. After all, if all you ever do, is all you’ve ever done, then all you’ll ever have is what you’ve got now (and that wouldn’t be very fun for too long, would it?).

7. Legacy - Your team wants to leave a lasting impression. As humans, we want to feel that we are doing our part, even in a small way, to make the world a better place. Research shows that this instinct to leave our mark only grows stronger as we age and become increasingly aware of our own mortality. Great leaders help their teams to make a mark through their work and encourage them to think about the lasting impact of what they do each day.


So, the next obvious question to ask is this - does meaning matter to you and your team? And if it does, how can you start pulling on these levers to create the wild levels of engagement and performance that you have a sneaking suspicion your teams are capable of?

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