How to uncover or discover inspiring meaning in your team’s work

Solving a Peer’s Important Problem—Again

A Workgroup member had one of the toughest management challenges:  helping employees find meaning in work that is technical, repetitive and frankly dull.  (The issue is current and sensitive, and therefore confidential.)

The peers did find a fresh perspective that revealed that, yes, this work does have real social value, and that has huge value for that team’s productivity, retention and recruitment.


Jon Brouchoud (new member)
Patti Epstein
Kevin Hickman
Steve Johannsen
Bryon Johnson
Tim Lerdahl
Bill Mitchell
Valerie Renk
Carolyn Tretina
Derrick Van Mell

First, the definitions:  Meaning = Value to society + Connection to co-workers

All but the greediest love to work on something that makes a difference in the world, to work on something “bigger than oneself.”  And we’re social animals:  people love to work together.

This, by the way, is The Center’s mission:  Helping managers create meaningful and collaborative work.

Even heart surgeons lose track of the good they do.  Sometimes the management challenge isn’t to create meaning, but to remind people of it.  That said, the world does change, so one must bravely ask, “Does this work no longer make a difference?

Ways to create meaning in work:  Uncover, Discover, Create, Connect

First, ask questions and ask for stories:

  • How do customers describe how your service or product makes their life easier?
  • What do people in other departments say?
  • What does the manager find meaningful and inspiring?
  • Is your work important not only to the organization, but to the industry overall?
  • How do the employees support each other?  How do they depend on and help each other?
  • Does the physical environment make people feel good about their work?
  • How do you measure the customer or even social benefit of the work?

Then, get busy

  • Draw a diagram of the “community” in which the employees work
  • Ask for customer and colleague stories every month
  • Recognize and celebrate making a difference in people’s lives
  • Conduct “stay interviews,” about why people (including contractors) think their work matters

We’re almost all small cogs helping indirectly—but that’s OK

Firefighters and other first responder provide direct and obvious value.  But most of us work quietly supporting people on the front lines.  A great insight is that most people don’t need to be heroes, but they do want to know—in a real, even if small way, that their work matters.

Ego is a problem to perceiving the value of our work.  Gurus yammer about differentiation, but that’s not relevant.  The American Hospital Association reports there are today 6,093 hospitals in the US.  You don’t have to work at Mayo to be lastingly proud of helping people save lives.

Industrial poetry:  “Our springs bring equipment to life.”

The jargon about meaning is perilous: Mission, Vision, Purpose, “The Why.”  Don’t be redundant. It’s confusing.

It might take years, but search for the snappy sentence or phrase that sings about the true value of the work.  A Chicago manufacturer of tiny springs says, “Our springs bring equipment to life.”