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How to Create Meaning at Work

How to Create Meaning at Work
So far, we’ve talked a lot about the difference between extrinsic motivation, pay, salary, bonuses, etc, recognition, status, and intrinsic motivation. And in that category of intrinsic motivation, we talked about meaning, the significance of our work. There’s some studies that show that among all of the motivating factors that might motivate someone to perform at a high level at work, the significance of my work, the relevance, the meaning of my work, actually oftentimes is the number one motivating factor, ahead of pay, ahead of relationships with other people. Does my work matter? Does it mean something to people, the organization, and so on.
Meaning tends to be one of the most important, if not, the number one motivating factor that we’re finding in organizations today. And so, I want to spend a little bit of time talking about the role of meaning and how you might be able to leverage meaning to motivate either yourself, or team members, or people that you might be managing. One of the questions I often get asked is how do we create meaning at work? Where does this meaning come from? And so, I’ll give you a couple of examples. One of the pieces of advice that I often give managers in organizations is to focus on the relevance of the work, the relevance of the task, to a bigger picture.
How does my little task over here, in my team and my unit, enable the organization to achieve what it’s trying to achieve? How does my individual task enable my team to be successful? For individuals, being able to see the connection between their individual contributions and the overall contribution of either the team or the organization is one way, really effective way, to create a sense of meaning and significance. And you, as a manager, have the opportunity to do that when you talk about the relevance or the importance of the work you’re asking people to engage in, and being able to connect that to the broader purpose, the broader mission, the broader task of the team or the organization.
So, that’s one way. Another way, a former doctoral student of ours, good friend, good colleague of mine, Adam Grant, who’s now at Wharton Business School. When he was a graduate student at the University of Michigan, and still today, he does a lot of work on how to leverage our impact on other people to create meaning for us at work. And a couple of studies that he’s conducted with other folks, Dave Hoffman down at University of North Carolina and other individuals from around the world, I think really illustrate this concept very well. One of the studies they did was with radiologists.
Where radiologists, their prime responsibility at work is to read radiological scans and be able to tell doctors and patients whether they have a broken bone, or whatever ailment they might have. But they’re really focused on these x-rays, these radiological scans. And come to find out, human beings are not perfect, and neither are radiologists. And they do, they make mistakes when they read these x-rays. And Adam and his colleagues, actually, went in and tested whether or not they could improve the accuracy of these radiological scans by focusing on creating meaning by what Adam called outsourcing it to your customers, or the beneficiaries.
So, for radiologists, what they did is immediately preceding the radiologist reading the x-ray and making his or her conclusion off of it, is for half the group, they showed them a picture of a human being. The human being wasn’t necessarily the patient that the radiologist was looking at the x-ray of. But it was just a picture of a human being. And then for the other half, they didn’t show them anything. And what was fascinating is the accuracy of the radiological scans and the x-rays, the accuracy of the radiologist went up about 46% for the radiologist who saw the picture of the human being, relative to those who did not.
And so, what they’re doing is they’re creating this motivation, this intrinsic motivation, this sense of significance, meaning, relevance, by reminding the radiologist that there’s a human being and a life at stake here. And the importance of their work matters to that human being. And it’s not just another x-ray without a face. And so, that’s a classic and a wonderful example of being able to create meaning by making extremely salient to the employee why their work matters, in this case, the patient. A very similar example, Adam and Dave Hoffman did is when they looked at healthcare professionals, healthcare workers in hospitals. One of the leading reasons for getting sick when you’re in the hospital are infections.
And one of the primary causes of infections when you’re in the hospital is healthcare professionals not washing their hands as effectively as they should after going to the restroom or after other procedures and so on. And, there’s some data that suggest that north of one-third of healthcare professionals do not wash their hands as effectively as they need to to stop the spread of infections and the like. And so, Adam and his colleagues got really interested in trying to understand, could they use meaning and this intrinsic motivation to create a sense of significance and importance to the actual practice of washing hands?
And so, if you reflect on when you walk into a restroom, a public restroom, often, there’s a sign on the wall that reminds you that you should wash your hands. And Adam and his colleagues played with the language of that sign. In some of the bathrooms, they had the sign relate to the consequences of washing your hands for you, yourself. And then, in the other bathrooms, they had the signs talk about the consequences of the hand washing practice to patients. Now remember, why do healthcare workers, many of them, go into this occupation? They wanna make a difference for patients. That’s one of the common intrinsic motives, values that really drives people to engage in these professions.
And so, imagine these two different bathrooms, one focusing on the consequences of hand washing for you, the healthcare worker. The other bathroom’s focusing on the consequences of hand washing for the patient. Hypothesis being that we’re gonna see greater meaning, greater relevance, thus, greater engagement and motivation in the bathrooms where it’s focused on the consequences for the patient less so for the healthcare professional in those bathrooms. And that’s exactly what they found. What we’re seeing here on the y axis is, the metric is usage of soap, if you want to assess how often, or how effectively people are washing hands.
One of the metrics you can use without being too invasive is actually measuring how much soap is used in the restrooms. And so prior to changing the signs, they did a pretest and that measured the baseline, if you will, of soap usage. And then, they implemented a control condition, no sign and then either signs focusing on the personal consequences to the healthcare worker, or signs in different bathrooms focused on the consequences for the patient. And then, measured the soap usage over the course of time.
And consistent with what you might expect, they found that the soap usage in the bathrooms that were really focused on patients, was dramatically higher than the soap usage in bathrooms that focused on the personal consequences of the control condition where there was no change in the sign. And so again, this is a classic example and a wonderful illustration of how you can outsource motivation by talking about the impact of individuals’ work on beneficiaries such as the customer, the patient, whatever the context you’re in, you always have some beneficiary of your work. If you’re in a restaurant, it’s the people eating at the restaurant. If you’re in a hospital, it’s the patients.
If you are Volvo, for example, and you’re building cars, what is Volvo known for? Safety. So, if you wanna motivate people on the assembly line to perform with a greater diligence and motivation, you bring in people whose lives have been saved by Volvo automobiles when they were in accidents. Give their work meaning. Give their work relevance, and you will see an increase in motivation. No matter what field, no matter what occupation you’re in, there’s an opportunity here to outsource this intrinsic motivation to that beneficiary. At the same time, I want you to understand that this notion of meaning can be a double-edged sword. There are both pros and cons, benefits and costs.
One of my favorite studies to this end was conducted by a good friend Stuart Bunderson and Thompson, published in 2009. And they were really interested in the impact that meaning and meaningful work has on the employee. And they focused on zookeepers. Zookeepers are people who generally go into this occupation because they’re very passionate about the animals. They really want to contribute to the well-being of these animals. But they’re underpaid. They get paid very little. The hours are really difficult, really unpredictable. The work conditions are tough. And so by any sort of job standard, this is a tough occupation.
And so, what Bunderson and Thompson did is they interviewed a number of these zookeepers, asking them why they got into the field and trying to understand why these zookeepers saw this occupation as really a calling. Really a calling, an occupation that was filled with meaning. And what they found was this double-edged sword. That on the benefits, when you’re in these occupations that you see as a calling, this deep sense of purpose and meaning, you have that sense of purpose, you see the significance and you’re highly committed to the occupation of the job. You go above and beyond. That motivation that we’re often trying to encourage people to contribute to our teams, our organizations.
But at the same time, whether this is for yourself or for your employees, you need to understand that there’s another side to that story. In these zookeepers, for example, they saw the occupation as a moral duty. They have a hard time leaving the occupation because they see their contributions to these animals as almost having a moral component, where they can’t get out of this occupation, even if they want to. Because it’s their moral obligation, their moral responsibility to stay in and contribute. They’re willing to sacrifice pay, personal time, all of the comforts of life, and they feel almost trapped. And so, there’s a lot of what’s today called these high intensity, high commitment organizations.
Often time, professional service firms, the consulting firms, the investment banking firms, are these organizations that people will commit to even though they don’t really like the work as much. And they have a hard time getting out. This, here, is something different. This, here, is I have this deep sense of purpose, this deep sense of meaning, and as a result, I can’t get out, even though the conditions are such that there’s a big cost to me personally and professionally. And so again, just understand there’s a double-edged sword to this concept of meaning.
But at the end of the day, if you’re looking for higher commitment, higher motivation, higher engagement among your team members, among your employees, the extent to which you can create a sense of meaning, a sense of purpose, you will in return get that higher level of motivation and engagement. And one really effective way to do that is to focus on the relevance, the importance of the tasks, the work they’re doing. Help your employees understand why what they’re doing at work matters.
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