Why meaning and purpose should be central to the employee experience (Part 1 in series)

Coworkers laughing over iconography cards

Increasingly we’re seeing it’s not enough to do a good sales job promoting the employer brand to current and prospective employees. Employees can now evaluate employers more on their own terms and not just on the image that employers want to portray. This is evidenced by the rise of the Glassdoor employee-as-a-consumer transparency and social change like gender pay gap reporting. Organizations are becoming more transparent in what they really stand for and the value they add. And arguably because of these new market forces, talent is becoming more values-driven, too, and less accepting of the gloss of the brand and more demanding of the value their potential and current employer can add to the world.

So how does an employer take control of their employee experience in a way that can work with these factors to make the organization a better place to be? I argue that the response is to make work more meaningful, to focus on purpose. But isn’t that only for vocations? Professions? How does that sentiment square with minimum wage jobs versus careers?

Creating a path to purpose

Barry Schwartz’s book, Why We Work, shows that any job can have meaning, or more specifically, employers can design workplaces that enable people to find meaning in the work they do. He gives highly compelling examples of hospital cleaners appreciating the impact and importance of their role because they understand how they contribute. They see what’s going on around them and want to be part of the common mission.

Behavioral economist, Dan Ariely, also presents a very convincing case for the power of meaning behind all human endeavors. His experiments show how much we value even the most basic meaning in what we do. We don’t need to feel we’re saving the world — we just need to know what we do matters.

So what does this mean for the way we think about employee experience? It should mean that purpose becomes much more central, both in terms of how we connect the individual’s meaning to that of the organization and the meaning they create through the context, conditions and operation of their role.

It would appear there’s incredible potential in the employee experience if we can wake up to the power of meaning. Helping people feel more worthwhile at work, regardless of their role, is possible. But it requires the organization to put more control into the hands of leaders who understand the importance of emotional design — the idea that we can create the principles, values and most importantly, the conditions for meaning to thrive.

Meaning is a very personal thing, and employers should not expect to be able to move everyone emotionally to the same degree – but they can move people more and make more of an emotional connection. If the objective of the employee experience is to make a stronger bond between the organization and the individual, then finding meaning and creating purpose is the way to do it.

Don’t just take my word for it! Check out Barry Schwartz’s book, Why We Work, and Dan Ariely’s presentation.

In my next blog I’ll discuss how the employee experience can help organizations embrace change.


 

Richard Veal

Richard Veal is a Global Leader in Communication and Change Management at Willis Towers Watson.

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