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Can You Help Others Find Meaning In Their Work?

How to use the CARMA steps to cultivate meaning within your teams.

If you asked the people in your team to rate how meaningful they found their work, what do you think their answers would be? Perhaps, like many of the organizations I’ve been working with lately, it would be that they don’t really feel what they do each day has much impact. Or maybe, like some of the workplaces I’ve recently encountered, it would be that their work feels so important they’re struggling to keep their commitment in perspective.

The reality is that most of us want our careers and work to be more than simply a way to earn a pay check or pass our time, we want our work to mean something.

Associate Professor Michael Steger, explains that work is meaningful to the degree that we feel:

  • What we’re doing has significance and purpose;
  • Is in harmony with the rest of our life;
  • We’re making a positive contribution to the greater good.

He explains that: “If you have a meaningful job you’re less dependent on what happens within the controls of those outside of you. You’re more expressive of what truly matters to you, you’re using strengths you have and you’re working to make a positive impact on the planet around you.”

Source: Canva

No wonder a growing body of research suggests that finding our work meaningful helps to improve our sense of engagement, satisfaction and wellbeing. While I’ve been heartened recently to hear more CEOs talking about the moral responsibility to have to help deliver these outcomes for employees, studies suggest there are also bottom-line business benefits to helping people find more meaning in their work including improved job performance, organizational commitment, organizational citizenship behaviors and customer satisfaction.

But when it comes to helping others find meaning in their work, can you go too far?

Perhaps. Steger suggests that having too much meaning in our work can make people vulnerable to exploitation, resulting in them doing more work than what they are paid for. While leaders may initially welcome this extra “free” work, in my experience they soon discover the hidden costs of this kind of obsessive passion which can include higher levels of stress and anxiety, the risk of burn out and a lack of flexibility around changes in organizational strategy and operations felt to undermine the meaning in our work.

So what can you do to help people get the balance right?

Steger suggests that leaders try to cultivate CARMA for their teams by providing:

  • Clarity – Consistently share a clear vision about the purpose of your organization and your team. Why are you of service to others? How does this shape the way your organization is run? What actions does it mean your organization prioritizes? You can revise this as needed, but try to calibrate it constantly to ensure people know what to do at all times.

To what degree does your team have clarity about the your organization’s purpose?

For example, Starbucks tries to improve lives one cup at a time. During the latest economic downturn their CEO, Howard Schultz, wrote a memo to staff offering clarity of what the financial fluctuations might mean for their business. But throughout he used it as an opportunity to give his team clarity. At one point noting: “our customers, the people we serve and interact with everyday might be under more stress today, they might be a little frazzled, so just take a little time to reach out and make sure their day goes a little bit smoother after they’ve encountered you”.

  • Authenticity – At all times behave ethically and honestly and encourage others to do the same. Know what your organization's values are, and find ways you and your team can live these each day. It might be in the actions you prioritize, the way you interact with others or how you go about doing your work. It might be ensuring that your colleagues' sense of purpose isn’t exploited to the detriment or their wellbeing, relationships and performance at work. Set an example of how to “walk your talk” to build trust and confidence about what really matters in your organization.

Do you know your organization’s values off the top of your head? What do you do to ensure you live these each day as you go about your work?

For example, Jeff Bezos at walks his talk of putting customers first, by repeatedly sacrificing short-term profits—and suffering the ire of Wall Street's stock analysts—by reducing prices and even publishing information on the website that discourages customers from buying certain products. And when Walmart founder Sam Walton traveled on business, he rented the same compact economy cars and stayed in the same inexpensive hotels as his employees to reduce costs.

  • Respect – Build positive, effective relationships with others. How we treat one another at work matters. Insensitive interactions have a way of whittling away at people’s health, performance and souls. Making small adjustments such as listening, smiling, sharing and thanking others more often can have a huge impact. As does role-modeling how to be respectful of the organization’s financial and social obligations and the wellbeing of other team members, while maintaining your sense of purpose and passion for your work.

What are the small things you do to show respect to others each day at work?

For example, Ochsner Health System, a large Louisiana health care provider, implemented what it calls the “10/5 way.” Employees are encouraged to make eye contact if they’re within ten feet of someone, and say hello if they’re within five feet. Ochsner has found these small gestures have led to improvements in patient satisfaction and patient referrals.

  • Mattering – Each job must have a point and each employee needs to understand how their labor contributes to the organization’s mission. The number one predictor of finding meaning in our jobs is the belief that what we do positively impacts others. Mattering can be making a difference for a customer, a co-worker or a community. Helping others see how their work contributes to an organization’s goals and the benefits this brings for others is one of the key tasks of any leader.

Do your team members understand why each of their roles matters and the positive impact they have on the organization goals for others?

For example, Facebook shares the stories of friends and families that have been reunited with their engineers to help them understand why each line of code they create matters. Wells Fargo ask customers to describe for their bankers how a loan has helped them to buy a house or make a dream possible, so staff understand how important each step in processing a loan can be for others. And Microsoft have found that after meeting end users face-to-face, developers better empathize with the challenges they face and are more motivated to design software with users in mind.

  • Autonomy – People are more intrinsically motivated when they feel they have a choice at work in the way goals are executed. Once they understand why a goal is important, try to give your people freedom to figure out how this can be achieved in ways that are aligned with their strengths and the organization’s purpose and values.

How do you empower you team to make choices about how they achieve their goals?

For example, at Zappos, regardless of what position call-center employees hold, they are given access to the same tools as managers to leave customers, employees, or vendors saying “wow”. If a customer loyalty team member needs to refund a customer's money, upgrade shipping, make that customer a V.I.P., or send a surprise WOW package of cookies or flowers to brighten a customer's day, they can do it.

Remember that while obsessive passion for the job, can provide short-term benefits, the long-term costs that come with too much meaning at work is rarely good for the employee or the organization so use the CARMA steps to ensure you’re willing to reap what you have sown.

If you’re looking for more on Michael’s work or you’re wanting to measure the meaning your team are finding in their work, then visit or watch Michael’s TEDx Talk here.