We often hear that millennials want to do “meaningful work.” Generally, this is taken to refer to charity work or any role where the main outcome is something that will benefit society, the planet, animals, or something like that. Under this definition, a role such as building boxes for bats to nest in could be described as meaningful work, but the types of jobs most people do, such as providing tech support for a software firm or working in your local restaurant would not.
I am resistant to this notion because I think it is a bit patronizing to the rest of us. Most jobs have meaningful aspects and allow people to make a useful contribution to society—and it would be limiting to say to young people that they should be hunting only for jobs that fit that narrow definition of meaningful.
Aristotle said that where your talents and the needs of the world coincide, there lies your vocation. I think that is as good a definition as any. Playing to your strengths and finding a role where these are valued is likely to lead to work that is fulfilling to you and useful to others. If you are brilliant at bat-box-building, good luck to you, go for it—but that may not be the best path for someone whose talents lie in making tzatziki or working front of house in the lively taverna where you can enjoy eating it. Providing great service to your customers, whether that means helping them to navigate the digital world or to enjoy a lovely evening out, is also of value.
As a manager, I see it as my job to foreground the meaningful aspect of work. It is important not to lose sight of the human and service elements of the jobs people do, or the ways in which they can continue to develop and make use of their talents. Here are some tips for doing this.
Don’t Tie People Up in Red Tape
I think business leaders have a responsibility to ensure that employees are aware of the value of the contribution they make and not to swamp them in pointless bureaucracy. The business guru John Harvey-Jones said: “No-one goes to work wanting to do a bad job, we just put so much red tape in their way that they give up trying.”
Sadly, I see that many companies end up following processes that are outdated, collecting copious information that nobody looks at, creating decision-making bottlenecks that actually impede workers and stop them from performing in their roles to the best of their abilities. That hides the meaningful aspect of the job and puts the focus on ticking boxes.
Give people information, support, and as far as possible, let them get on with it. Unfortunately, another sign of an overgrowth of bureaucracy tends to be that people are not in the loop and they don’t have insight into what the business strategy is, how it is performing and what their part to play in it is. We did a survey at Kimble showing that the vast majority of workers care deeply about how the business they work for is performing, but very few of them felt they had a clear picture. That makes it harder for them to understand the value of their contribution.
Don’t Have a Blame Culture—Have a Team Culture
Business leaders should use assessment constructively. If things aren’t going according to plan, it’s best to take a team approach to fixing it.
Working together to solve problems creates a strong team spirit, and most people find being part of a team, working together on a shared endeavor, is highly engaging and meaningful. People also love being part of a winning side—succeeding and growing and effecting change as a group. Ensuring that the business has an inclusive culture and values diversity is important here—it creates stronger and more resilient teams.
Emphasize the Positive
When discussing targets for the business, I would recommend expressing these in human terms such as customer satisfaction or customer success rather than simply in numerical terms. The vision shouldn’t just be about driving shareholder value or company profits – think about ways to measure the usefulness of the products or services that the business offers.
We focus a lot in business today on our customers. But it is the employees of the business who build these relationships. Prioritizing this is a virtuous circle because if employees are more motivated and engaged and feel valued, they are likely to deliver greater customer satisfaction. That’s great for the business, but it is also great for the employees who can derive a sense of meaning from this.
Encourage people to develop themselves, their skills and talents with appropriate training and experience. When managing a team, I encourage people to add a line to their resume each year and to focus their energy on external, customer-facing work rather than making life easier for their boss.
This is another reason to keep the focus in the right place—because when you are developing talented and confident employees, you know that if the business doesn’t continue to offer them the roles they want, they may go elsewhere!