Meaning at Work – It’s Not Just for Millennials

Millennials Opened the Door, But Today, Meaning is for Everyone

Employee engagement is a hot topic, and it’s hard to overlook all the chatter about how important it is to provide Millennials with a sense of meaning at work. At least, that’s the stereotype.

After conversations with several people in the Millennial generation, I’ve been informed–more than once–that they really don’t like being labeled. Who does?

Just because someone belongs to a particular generation doesn’t mean that they are any more predisposed to search for purpose in their work.

People have been looking for meaning almost as long as they’ve been doing something other than fighting for subsistence. When we had to hunt and gather and build our shelter, it was pretty clear: the meaning of work was survival.

After the Caveman Era, Things Got a Little Murky

Once we have the basic essentials covered, what’s next? Searching for meaning is a natural tendency of humans who know that life is short, and it should count for something.

Granted, not everyone stresses over the meaning of work. Some people get up, go to work every day, collect a check, pay the bills and they’re happy. They find meaning in other areas of their lives, and work is a means to an end.

For generations that preceded the Millennials, that’s just how it was. If angst set in over the question, “What’s my legacy going to be?” it was usually a personal struggle, fought in private or with close confidantes.

Millennials grew up in an age of sharing (or over-sharing) on social media. They’re comfortable with frank conversations and they speak up where their parents were silent.

Don’t assume that outspokenness suggests that Millennials are the only ones seeking meaning! The rest of us care, too. We want to know that all the hours spent toiling away at our chosen vocations have some purpose greater than a paycheck.

In fact, Liz Maw, CEO of Net Impact, says “employees who say they can make an impact while on the job report greater satisfaction than those who can’t by a 2:1 ratio.”

It’s Powerful

I know from my own experience how compelling this particular issue can be. While I climbed the corporate ladder during my career as a marketing executive, I watched my paycheck get bigger while my sense of purpose receded.

It was hard for me to connect the work I was doing every day with the world at large. Sure, I was helping to sell products, which made my company grow and that created more value for shareholders. Investors were enjoying prosperity, but that didn’t make my heart sing.

Being successful in the traditional sense just wasn’t enough for me. Of course I liked advancing through the ranks. It was a rush when somebody thought enough of me to promote me. I enjoyed building a team, coaching my staff, setting goals and seeing them met. At times, it was really, really fun.

But what did it all mean?

Much of my corporate career was spent in technology, working in telecom, with voice recognition software, and on voicemail platforms for wireless carriers.

I loved the industry. The technology appealed to my fascination with physics (my first major in college) and the culture of innovation inspired my more creative side.

So why was I bored? Why did I feel like a sellout when I left to take a new job with more responsibility and higher pay? Was I simply chasing the money?

Crystal Clear Purpose

It wasn’t until long after 9/11 that I finally got it.

One night I was watching a documentary on that tragic day. Families of victims talked about the final voicemail messages from their loved ones, the last words they would hear.

I realized then that the work I did helped make it possible to capture these precious messages from people who would never come home.

That’s when it hit me that all the work I was doing wasn’t about delivering new software, applying cool technology, or making anybody rich. It was about enabling people to connect and communicate not only the mundane, but also the most urgent of messages.

It’s a shame I didn’t see the light sooner. If I hard, I might still be working in corporate America. Instead – and I’m very happy about this – I work with leaders to help them clarify and express their organizational purpose.

If you think that sounds mushy and unimportant, think again.

Hard Numbers for Soft Stuff

A clear sense of shared purpose builds both employee engagement and brand affinity, increasing growth, improving productivity and reducing attrition.

In fact, employees at companies with a strong sense of purpose are four times as likely to report high employee satisfaction at their company. (Deloitte)

The difference between companies ranked in the top 25 percent for employee engagement and those in the bottom quartile is 22% higher profitability, 10% higher customer ratings, 28% lower theft and 48% fewer safety incidents. (Gallop)

Apple CEO Tim Cook understands the value of purpose. At Apple’s annual meeting in 2014 he stated, “We do things for other reasons than a profit motive, we do things because they are right and just,” according to the Financial Times.

Cook is on to something that many miss: purpose is an essential element of the twenty-first century brand. Customers need to understand it, employees need to embrace it and investors need to support it.

That doesn’t imply we should abandon sound business principals or that every company ought to consider becoming a B Corp. It’s merely a reflection of the fact that employees and customers alike seek meaning, regardless of their age.

Nielsen’s corporate social responsibility survey shows that 55% of Americans will pay more for products and services from companies that are committed to positive social and environmental impact. That’s a dramatic uptick from recent years.

Conscious capitalism is gaining ground as people become more vocal about their desire for meaning in all aspects of their life. They’re putting their emotions into action by choosing to work for and buy from mission-driven companies that share their values.

Yours should be one of them.

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