How Purpose Creates Meaning in the Workplace

Excerpt from The Search for Meaning at Work: Unleashing the Hidden Power of Purpose to Engage and Fulfill Your Workforce by Steve Van Valin, SVP of Culture Transformation

For work to have meaning, it must have a special significance to the worker. How does a worker know that something has special significance? The answer reveals the fundamental difference between meaning and purpose: the worker knows that something has special significance because he or she feels it. Meaning, unlike purpose, is an emotional response, not a rational, intentional target.

When someone says, “I have a strong sense of purpose doing this work,” what they are probably describing is meaning. “This work is meaningful” is the feeling and emotion we seek to influence so that people are engaged and fulfilled to do incredible work.

How Managers Can Create Purpose for Employees

Too many managers and business leaders think they have no control over meaning in their workplaces. “What am I supposed to do?” they ask. “Tell my people what to feel?” The answer, of course, is “no.” You can’t tell people what to feel. But you can create the conditions that lead to a certain feeling. That applies to all feelings and emotions. 

For example, you’re not going to walk into someone’s office and say, “Be angry.” You, as a leader, however, can create the conditions for anger—for example, by being a complete jerk.

In much the same way, you can create the conditions for meaning. The question is how do you create the conditions? You might know how to avoid making an employee angry, but do you know how to fill an employee with a sense of meaning?

An Example of “Meaningful Work”

Here, Amabile and Kramer offer an answer when they describe “meaningful work” as work that “contributes value to something or someone important to the worker.”^9 in other words, if through their work, workers are contributing value to something or someone important to them, they will emotionally respond to that activity with a sense of meaning.

For example, let’s say someone works for the transcendent purpose of providing her children with a standard of living that she never had as a child. It doesn’t matter what that person does at work. Her purpose of providing her children with a higher standard of living gives whatever she does meaning. She is creating a legacy through her work. Without a doubt, that is the motivational and sustainable force in her life and work.

As I pondered Amabile and Kramer’s definition of meaningful work, I realized the role that purpose plays in the creation of meaning. The reason the worker I just described finds meaning in her work is because she has a purpose: to give her children a higher standard of living.

Understanding How Purpose Drives Meaningful Work

Understanding that purpose drives meaning is essential for business leaders seeking to inspire their workers to be more engaged. If, in our role as leaders, we articulate purpose in smart ways to make it more conscious for other people — by defining purpose in terms of making a contribution of value to someone or something that is important to them — then it will increase the chances of them gaining an emotional return through meaning.

I call this process of articulating the inspiring purpose that helps workers gain meaning from their work amplifying meaning.