No, it isn’t money. But it does begin with an M. It’s meaning.
To retain high performers, “their work needs to provide them with meaning – a sense they are doing something important, that they are fulfilling their destiny,” wrote Alan Murray in The Wall Street Journal Essential Guide to Management. “These psychological needs are likely to be as important, and perhaps more… than the salary you pay.”
And as management legend Peter Drucker wrote, “Making a living is no longer enough. Work also has to make a life.”
Dave Ulrich, a professor at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan and a partner at the RBL group, is an acknowledged expert on making meaning at work. Ulrich believes it’s essential for leaders to grasp the importance of their role in this. “In almost any organization,” he says, “the job of a leader is to get people to see purpose.”
The Mind Shift Toward Meaning
Widely considered “the father of HR”, Ulrich shows how making meaning at work can yield tremendous benefits. It can help retain top performers, create greater engagement, and foster a “culture of abundance” for an entire organization.
It requires a mind shift to think of work this way. The standard image of corporate life involves focusing on money, recognition, and power. To have a job that feels meaningful and fulfilling has usually been considered a side benefit.
But according to Ulrich, we all need to work for a higher cause. While some organizations such as universities and hospitals have an obvious purpose, any organization can ask, “Why are we doing this work?” As a leader you need to create a purpose-driven company.
How to Make Meaning for Your Employees
Ulrich identifies three core principles:
Help employees use their strengths to strengthen others
Find what your employees are good at—sales, marketing, technology—even if it’s not in their direct job description.
In a bank that wanted to present a friendlier face to the public, executives were given a chance to work on what interested them. One proposed microlending to underserved constituents; one was passionate about building client trust and personal attention; and a third wanted to improve efficiency in management processes. Their projects built meaning both inside and outside the organization, and potentially improved the bottom line.
Find your firm’s purpose and be able to express it
Ask,“What are we trying to accomplish – is there a purpose that we share?”
As the saying goes, says Ulrich, am I helping build a cathedral, or am I just laying bricks? If employees see their company as a major contributor to solving the energy crisis, for example, they’ll regard their labor differently than just crunching numbers. In one technology company, leaders created meaning and support around cost-cutting measures by explaining that every $50K in savings could save one person’s job.
Nurture employee relationship-building
Help employees forge professional friendships between people and among teams
A particular furniture plant was very operational and assembly-line based. But for the employees, their greater meaning was, “We’ve worked together for twenty years. We socialize at work and outside of work… we enjoy being with each other.” Gallup research has found that people with close friends at work are 27% more likely to see their strengths as aligned with the company’s goals.
Meaning reinforces employees’ passion for work because it ties what they do to a greater good that also pays off in the marketplace. When you realize that 50% of a publicly-traded firm’s market value is made up of “intangibles”—such as employee competence, commitment, passion, and energy—meaning takes on a whole new meaning.
Dave Ulrich, PhD is the recipient of HR Magazine’s Lifetime Achievement Award as “the father of modern human resources”, and is a consultant to over half of the Fortune 200. Ulrich is the Rensis Likert Professor of Business at the Ross School, University of Michigan. He is also a partner at the RBL Group, a consulting firm focused on helping organizations and leaders deliver value. He has published over 200 articles and book chapters and over 25 books, including the Wall Street Journal bestseller The Why of Work: How Great Leaders Build Abundant Organizations That Win.