Why Does What You Do Matter? Making Work Meaningful

Amber Johnson Care for people, Culture, Leadership

QuestionThe CEO looked baffled.

A few minutes before, I had asked her, “What’s the greatest challenge you’re facing with your company?” This question came after she’d already described the company and its successes. As a mid-size home healthcare firm, they were in a growing industry with tremendous new opportunities. Just the same, she was quick to share her biggest concern.

“My people aren’t happy, and I don’t know why,” she said. She explained that she tried to take care of them: they had good desk jobs with caring supervisors, in a comfortable environment, with market-rate compensation.

“Desk jobs?” I asked. She went on to explain that it was only her administrative employees that seemed unhappy; the health care providers who worked directly with patients, in the patients’ homes, weren’t expressing dissatisfaction.

A few more questions and I had a hypothesis on the nature of her problem. “Is it possible,” I asked, “that your office employees don’t know why their work is important?”

She rolled her eyes at first, but then she leaned in a little. “What do you mean?” she asked.

I went on to explain that often happy, engaged employees know why their work matters – to their overall objectives, to their team, to the company, and to the community at large. Lose sight of your work’s contribution, and even important jobs can come to feel like you’re just “pushing papers.”

Three Questions to Ask

The first 10 years of my career were spent in non-profit management, bringing clean water to communities whose previous source was muddy, bacteria-infected puddles. The organization was literally feeding children starving children – and yet, from my cubicle an ocean away, my Outlook-account full of paperwork to be managed was more visible than the contribution it was making to our overall goal.

If you can lose sight of what makes your work meaningful in this context, you can lose sight anywhere. Remembering what makes your work meaningful, and connecting to it in a deep way, will improve employee engagement and satisfaction. In turn, this will likely deliver trickle-down benefits to your clients and customers.

Here are three questions to help you connect meaning to your work:

1. Do you know why this matters to the company?

Leaders at the top of an organization are easily able to see how their work makes an impact. But as you move lower in the organization (sometimes, even a tiny bit lower), the clear connection between an individual’s work and overall results can become muddier. As a leader, you must make the connection clear.

Help connect the dots by:

  • Knowing your organization’s core purpose. (One data server company considers their core purpose to be helping their employees meet their personal, professional, and financial goals. This changes the way they look at work.)
  • Creating individual goals and measurement metrics that “roll up” into organizational goals.
  • Finding public forums for drawing the connection between personal and team contributions and organizational success.
  • Use “we” and “us” language whenever possible.
  • Make sure the system rewards people who work aggressively toward the organization’s goal.
  • Offer ownership of a small part of the business or operations. (See how Tasty Catering does this using Open Book Management.)

2. Do you know why your work matters to the community? 

To really make work meaningful – and reap the benefits of a more engaged workforce – you have to go beyond the difference an individual can make in your work place. Understanding the difference your work makes in your community is powerful. This concept hit home to me when speaking recently with a friend, who manages regional operations for a large gasoline company. “My work puts gas into the engines of ambulances,” she told me.

How are your services and products contributing to society? How many jobs have you created? How does your work make it possible for your clients to contribute to their local communities?

Find clear ways to share how your work matters to the community around you.

3. Do you know why YOU matter to the people around you?

Finally, work is meaningful when we connect at a deep level with the people around us. As a leader, you’ll find authentic relationships to be a valuable source of insight. This can be true at any level of an organization, as we come to respect and love our colleagues.

Here I think of a senior manager, let’s call him Ed, who worked with a major telecommunications firm. The firm had gone through several mergers and acquisitions and it was clear that his department was going to be slowly phased out. Ed was near retirement and could have walked away with a handsome benefits package. But he knew that many of his younger colleagues weren’t so lucky, and that finding new jobs would be difficult. From his vantage point inside the organization, Ed saw how he’d be able to help these young leaders navigate to new roles within the organization, or buy them time to find new jobs outside the organization.

Ed found his last years before retirement to be incredibly meaningful because of the contribution he made to the company, and to the lives of the younger leaders around him. The circumstances in your organization may not be as dramatic, but the role your leaders play as mentors and guides can give them a deep sense of meaning that extends beyond your organization’s core purpose and contributes to their overall engagement and satisfaction.

Making work meaningful can add energy and enthusiasm to your workplace; it can help deliver results. We’d love to hear your stories about how you’ve found meaning and satisfaction in your work, or helped your executives and teams do the same. Share your stories below.

One final note: We find meaningfulness through our personal impact, and through our team’s impact within the organization and the wider community. Interestingly, this mirrors the curriculum of the Center’s doctoral program in values-driven leadership, which looks at leadership of self, of others, of the organization, and in the community and world. Learn more about this program, designed for senior executives, at www.cvdl.org/doctorate.


Amber Johnson is the corporate relations advisor for the Center for Values-Driven Leadership.

Photo Credit: db Photography | Demi-Brooke via Compfight cc


Looking to grow your own leadership capacity while leading your company? Learn more our M.S. in values-driven leadership – designed for executives.


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