Wendy Ulrich, Ph.D., M.B.A.

Wendy Ulrich Ph.D., M.B.A.

The Why of Work

Got Meaning? – Part 3: Direction and Motivation

Identify what motivates you to find meaning at work

Posted Jun 26, 2010

Where ya' headed? Easy to answer as long as the destination could be located by a GPS system. A little harder when we are talking about finding meaning in work and in life. Knowing what motivates you, and in most cases finding the right balance among multiple motivations, helps you tie your daily work to outcomes you care about: the visions that call to you, the laurel wreaths you find rewarding, the relationships you count on, and the ideas that enthrall you.

Who comes to mind when you think of someone who really seems to find their work meaningful and abundant? What seems to motivate them? Writing The Why of Work, co-author Dave Ulrich and I noted that most of what people find motivating can be lumped into one of four categories: 1 - Achievement, 2 - Relationships, 3 - Empowerment, and 4 - Insight.

1 - Achievement is about getting something done, and may include activities that are highly competitive or that require risk-taking, discipline, and resilience in the face of failure. High-abundance versions of Achievement might include an athlete in training, an artist perfecting a painting, or a corporate executive planning an aggressive growth strategy for the company. Someone motivated by Achievement looks at a baby's first smile and thinks, "How amazing! I wonder if she is developmentally on target for smiling."

2 - Connection describes people who find meaning in life through people they meet and interact with. Some will be energized by a few intimate relationships, others by looser ties with many people, but the common thread will be satisfaction and meaning through relating to others. This person looks at a baby's first smile and thinks, "Oh, he likes me! Now we have a relationship."

3 - Empowerment is characterized by a high need for achievement that is channeled into high investment in people, especially in working to overcome human suffering. Think of the TV show, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, where skilled designers and craftsmen work together and use their talents and skills to redesign and rebuild an unworkable house for a deserving but impoverished family. The needs, feelings, and desires of people are foremost in such scenarios, but so are the skills, learning, and accomplishments of those who try to help. Other examples might be a skilled teacher who loves developing students or a talented political leader who finds creative solutions to real-world problems. An individual motivated by Empowerment sees a baby's first smile and thinks, "This is the hope of the future. Children will change the world."

4 - Insight is about self-awareness, the life of the mind, the world of ideas, or personal experience for its own sake. We might think of a monk meditating quietly in a cave, a camper enjoying a mountain hike, or a thoughtful student examining inner motivations and feelings. At its best, Insight promotes awareness, thoughtfulness, creativity, and deep appreciation for what is good in this moment. This person looks at a baby's first smile and thinks, "Look at that! I wonder what is going on in that little mind of his."

To identify what motivates you, write for twenty minutes about what your life would look like five years from today if you had become your best self and all your dreams were realized. Looking through what you wrote, Put an A for Accomplishment in the margin for any words that refer to achieving goals, developing skills, exercising resilience to keep trying at a difficult task, or gaining recognition for accomplishments. Put a C for Connection in the margin for words referring to good relationships with others, spending time with people, bringing people together, or feelings of mutual care and support. Put an E for Empowerment in the margin for words referring to solving world problems, making a difference, mentoring or developing others, or providing resources or services to others. Finally put an I for Insight in the margin for any words that refer to creativity, imagination, self-awareness, balance, or thinking for thinking's sake. Then count up how many of each letter you have. (And yes, you can count double for items that have high value to you or that you elaborate on.)

When you create a clear line of sight between what motivates you and the work you do, work becomes more meaningful and satisfying.