March 8, 2017 reinierh

Making meaning at work

Millennials are in search of meaning at work. 

Gallup says 71% of millennial workers world-wide don’t feel engaged at work. A massive 51% are looking for new opportunities. 

I think design can help millennial workers make meaning in their work.

Many people don’t recognize parts of themselves in their work. Some don’t see their place in the company as important, or feel they are working on ‘someone else’s dream’. Or that their boss isn’t looking out for them, or that they are but a cog in the corporate system. Even entrepreneurs who are working on their dream business feel the dilution of purpose as a business grows. The point is that almost inevitably, we will all suffer a crisis of meaning at work – but I think there is a way out of the crisis for most people. In this article I want to offer a perspective from design that can help you do something about your crisis of meaning at work.

First – What is meaning?

Meaning is deep satisfaction. It’s better than chocolate cake. It means satisfying your higher-order needs and gives you motivation towards a goal. A nice reference is Daniel Pink’s great Ted talk: motivation at work is:

  • Autonomy – self direction
  • Mastery – improvement at core skills
  • Purpose – aligning personal needs and a cause beyond oneself to daily work

The question is how to practically do this in my job?

First the right mindset. Satisfied colleagues I know own their situation. They feel responsible for their personal satisfaction at work. Accept that you must self direct, define your core skills to improve in. Most important to achieving meaning at work is taking responsibility to seek alignment between your personal needs and the goals of the company – or a cause beyond it. Most juniors have a hard time with this, they expect the employer to create the conditions for them to excel. A few good employers do, but this doesn’t, and cannot compensate for the effect of a personal sense of ownership to create your own meaningful work.

Putting the right mindset into action:

Simply make it so that you are working on your dream at work. Get involved with the vision of the company. Design a win-win situation for your company and you. The goal isn’t to shift the company, rather to carve out a niche for yourself that helps both the company and you grow at the same time. Be an entrepreneur within your company. This is hard in some professions or markets. Law, finance, data entry – the ‘dry’ stuff. Yet even here I dare argue that through the right mindset and creative negotiation of your circumstances you should be able to create meaning in your work.

The secret is to design your meaningful situation.

I want to introduce the idea that you can design a meaningful work experience using a process that designers use to embed meaning into brand and product experiences. It works because the process embeds meaning into what you do. Strategist Nathan Shedroff describes how brands and products appeal to a universal set of meanings which people value (achievement, beauty, community, etc.), regardless of whether the product is drinks or software. Brands focus on one meaning to embody, for example Coca Cola is about happiness, Harley Davidson is about rebellion. Shedroff has a model which details how to innovate meaningful experiences for end consumers. Now let’s use this model to help us build meaningful careers! Below I make a simplified approach for designing your meaningful work situation:

How to design meaning into your work:

  1. The mindset of ownership. Accept that you are responsible for creating your own meaningful work environment. Accept that you are in need of a change; don’t complain – act. Define what you are willing to do to make a change and gather your energy – it’s not easy.
  2. Know yourself. What higher order values and meanings are dear to you? What gives you energy and excites you? Gives you purpose? Here is a list for inspiration.
  3. Identify the opportunity. Look globally first – how do your needs for meaning relate to society’s needs (e.g. your need for equality makes you passionate about the issue of food shortages)? How does your company/startup represent meaning in society, how does this relate to your personal needs and ambitions (e.g. experience the joy of creation making better packaging that preserves food)? What activities can/do you do that connect to your personal values and quest for meaning (autonomy/mastery/purpose)? Are there KPIs that align with your skills? What activities are a no-go? Identify the opportunity for meaning in a succinct story you can explain to others. Be sure to align value for you, the company and society.
  4. Frame your idea. Describe what actions/functions/roles you will do and which you will stop. Talk to your managers, CEO or team and share your vision for how your contribution creates meaning for you, the company and society. Keep it simple and not preachy. The point is to share your ambition and get energy going into your work from other people and so they know what their contribution can be to make you more effective. If you have managers, they need to recognize the benefit of an engaged worker, so sell it well. Turn it into a project.
  5. Shape and refine your work experience. Put your plan into action. This will be hard at first, you need to break old habits of yourself and co-workers that reflect the old situation. Look at all the aspects of your job. Once you have an awesome day, analyze it to see why and how you can do more of this work and phase out the unhelpful aspects. Continually build on this to keep shaping your own meaningful experience at work.

Taking control of finding meaning at work can take enormous amounts of effort. Most difficult perhaps is when you are only half happy. Here I would make a clear argument – it’s not going to get better on its own. And if you make a concerted effort and your progress towards a meaningful job is clearly blocked by an uncooperative boss or lacklustre CEO, quit. I accept that not everyone has the luxury of doing this, but most often people in the developed world have this choice. It’s about priorities, and again, owning it. Staying in an unchangeable situation will slowly erode your energy, but prepare yourself carefully for the difficult journey of rebuilding meaning at your next stop.

Working ‘for the man’ is yesterday’s work. All of us can benefit from this millennial thinking if we design meaning into our work.

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P.s. This week one of the entrepreneurs I coach quit and left her day job to seek more meaning. This takes enormous courage and gives enormous energy at the same time. The day after she quit she was offered a training gig. Go get em tiger!

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