Will meaningful work make your employees moral?

By Brett Beasley

The "Great Resignation" is here: Employees are leaving their jobs in droves to find work that aligns with their passions. Organizations stand to benefit from this trend—but only if leaders appreciate the potential (and the pitfalls) of meaningful work.

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As the first wave of COVID-19 surged, so did job losses. Lockdowns went into effect, companies shut their doors, and they began laying off and furloughing employees in droves. The ILO estimates that 8.8 percent of global working hours were lost over the course of 2020—the equivalent of 255 million full-time jobs.

Now, as the pandemic is receding, there is a new wave of departing workers. But this time they’re not leaving by necessity but by choice.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2.7 percent of the American workforce quit their jobs in April of 2021. That’s the highest quit rate since the bureau began tracking the number two decades ago. By the end of August of 2021, half of all employees were either actively looking for new work or were open to changing jobs. Texas A&M Management Professor Anthony Klotz began calling this new epoch the “Great Resignation.”

Searching for Purpose (Not Perks)

Companies have responded to the “Great Resignation” by giving employees greater autonomy (including remote work), cushier perks, and higher salaries. But these efforts alone haven’t been able to stem the flow of departures. That’s because most employees are not looking for comfort but a chance to contribute. They want work that aligns with their passions and allows them to help others.

As Mark Hamrick, senior economic analyst at Bankrate, puts it, “There have been a lot of epiphanies and reckonings that have occurred during the time with respect with how we’re prioritizing ultimately our values, and of course how work fits into that.” In many cases, employees are even willing to accept a lower salary in order to get a job they truly believe in. Gallup finds that “Disengagement is a better predictor than pay of disloyalty" and that even companies' most highly paid workers are among those looking for a new job.

For leaders, this means that thriving during the “Great Resignation” and beyond may require getting a better grasp of two things: 1.) what makes work meaningful and 2.) how meaningful work fits in an overall business strategy. The good news is that meaningful work isn’t just the secret to attracting and retaining top talent. It’s also an important force for building a more ethical workplace.

When Meaningful Work Leads to Moral Workplaces

Researchers find that employees who experience high levels of meaning at work are also more likely to engage in what they call “organizational citizenship behaviors” or OCBs. OCBs are acts of altruism, courtesy, conscientiousness, sportsmanship, civic virtue, and help. Examples include serving as a mentor to a coworker in need, lending a hand to a team member who is struggling, going the extra mile to serve a customer, and cooperating on team projects.

Employees who engage in OCBs aren't merely being nice; they're driving organizational effectiveness. Because they bind teams together, OCBs foster both individual and group-level success. For this reason, some researchers see OCBs as the main way corporate purpose and values manifest themselves in actual employee behavior and contribute to financial performance.

As important as OCBs are, they can be difficult to mandate. They are typically actions employees must take voluntarily. And they rarely show up in formal job descriptions or reward systems. Meaningful work, however, does have a strong connection with OCB. For example:

Callings

Yuna Cho (U. Of Hong Kong) and Winnie Jiang (INSEAD) recently analyzed the differences in behavior between two types of employees: 1.) those who approach their work as a calling and 2.) those who approach it as a job only. The job-focused employees find their motivation in financial rewards and in career success. But those who approach their work as a calling have an intrinsic motivation to do their work. Cho and Jiang found that, compared with job-focused employees, calling-focused employees were much more likely to engage in OCBs. Cho and Jiang also discovered that although people who pursue a calling aren’t primarily in it for money, money tends to follow. Cho and Jiang noticed that managers were especially likely to select calling-focused employees to receive raises and promotions.

Passion

Marina N. Astakhova (U. of Texas at Tyler) finds that up to a certain point, a healthy passion for one's work leads to an increase in OCBs. Like calling-oriented employees, they tend to see OCBs as part of their work rather than a distraction from it. She is quick to add, though, that past a certain point, or directed in the wrong ways, passion can become destructive. She finds that passion leads to OCBs, but only so long as employees keep their work in harmony with the rest of their lives.

Mission

In addition to personal callings or passions, a connection to an organization's social mission can provide an important source of meaning. A study by Madeline Ong (Singapore Management University), David M. Mayer (University of Michigan), Leigh P. Tost (USC), and Ned Wellman (USC), revealed that Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) efforts often lead to organizational citizenship behaviors. While many companies engage in CSR to enhance their reputation, this new research shows that CSR also has an important effect within the organization by shaping employees' attitudes and behaviors.

Put it in Practice

While meaningful work can be a positive force, it's not a silver bullet. Meaningful work can also be misused and misdirected. The task for leaders is to allow for and enable meaningful work without doing so in an overbearing or manipulative way. Here are three areas to focus on your organization:

Promote Passion—Not Obsession

Researchers make a helpful distinction between two kinds of passion: harmonious work passion and obsessive work passion. Taken too far, passion for work backfires because it causes work to take over one's life. For this reason, excessive passion crowds out OCB rather than encouraging OCB. People with obsessive passion are also more likely to pursue their goals in an unethical manner and they're more likely to burn out.

Select for Competence + Calling

Sometimes “managers misperceive their employees’ calling orientation toward work as evidence of better performance and a stronger commitment to the organization.” But it's important to recognize that a person who approaches work as a calling isn't automatically the best candidate for the job or promotion. Find instead an employee who is highly competent and feels called to their work.

Motivate, But Don’t Manipulate

Prior to the pandemic, The Atlantic writer Derek Thompson called "workism" one of the "most potent of the new religions competing for congregants." One of the side effects of the pandemic is that it caused, for many, a kind of "forced sabbatical" that separated them, for a time, from workism. Companies should take take note and recognize that meaningful work needs to be in harmony with the rest of employees' lives. If not, it will often backfire. As one pair of researchers notes, "there are limits on the pool of energy and resources available to employees...sustained levels of engagement will be difficult to achieve."

If employees aren't able to pursue the things they find meaningful outside work, then they won't experience meaning at work either. That's why leaders should aim to build a culture—not a cult—of meaningful work.

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