• Managing people

Giving Meaning at Work

How to give meaning to inspire and retain employees

Thursday 14 September 2017


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Giving meaning is a priority issue for not just companies, but for all sorts of organizations, such as NGOs, political parties and sporting associations, as well. Many leaders deplore excessive turnover, particularly among young people. In their view, the cause is linked to the absence of loyalty, even unfaithfulness, of Generation Y. These youngsters living in a permanent online immediacy are unconditional fans of Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat and the like. Informed in real time of job opportunities relayed by their network, they are often reproached for being ready to change firms for a better-paid job.

While it is true that this propensity towards mobility, even volatility, exists, complaining about it, as many leaders do, is not much use! It is important to admit that, whatever the company does, there will always be some amount of ‘natural’ turnover. In this context, knowledge management is important because it can prevent a departure from being synonymous with a ‘loss of knowledge’. For example, in a team of sales engineers, each product line should be covered by at least two people, and multi-skilling should take precedence over specialisation.

When the turnover does not affect only the younger employees, business leaders cannot blame Generation Y. In fact, numerous departures can be explained by other reasons. If the employees cannot see any meaning to their involvement, or perceive in what way they are participating in the realisation of some stimulating vision, it is quite likely that they feel little commitment towards their company. The same applies when the leaders are not ‘genuine’, when they adopt a behaviour that conflicts with what they say.

In this context, it is essential that all organizations have a mission, a vision and a bedrock of core values, and that these are not only understood, but also valued and owned by the employees.

The mission refers to the purpose, aim and vocation of the company. It answers the existential question of ‘Why’, ‘why does this company exist?’ All individuals ask themselves this question. What are we doing on earth? What do we want do with our lives?

The responsibility for formalising the mission falls on the management team. The mission should be meaningful for both the employees and the various stakeholders.

For Facebook, the mission is to ‘give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected’.

For UNICEF, it is ‘To advocate for the protection of children’s rights, to help meet their basic needs and to expand their opportunities to reach their full potential’.

For L’Oréal, it is ‘offering all women and men worldwide the best of cosmetics innovation in terms of quality, efficacy and safety’.

The vision, that is the ‘What’, what the company wishes to achieve, its declared ambition, the mobilising challenge that it gives itself within the framework of its mission. While facilitating strategic workshops on vision, we have noticed that the real issue is the sharing of views and convergence. The participative process leading to a definition of a shared vision is more important that the search for an original formulation.

The vision puts the company under stress by mobilising its energies. Thus, L’Oréal states: ‘Our ambition for the coming years is to win over another one billion consumers around the world by creating the cosmetic products that meet the infinite diversity of their beauty needs and desires’.

For the vision to become reality, every organization ought to undertake actions within a strategic framework. It is at this level that values have a decisive role to play. As enduring beliefs that express in particular what is right and what is wrong, values refer to the ‘How’ inasmuch that they should guide our actions.

Thus, values are not just a credo stuck up on a wall. Authenticity is again unavoidable if we do not want the employee to live a cognitive dissonance. This is caused by the perception of a gap between the proclaimed values and those actually used. To get out of this uncomfortable position, resignation or flight are two frequently observed strategies that translate into a lack of commitment or even a departure from the company.

Hence, organizations must be capable of giving meaning, providing mobilising projects that foster intellectual excitement, and reinforcing the identification process. By working on the formulation and ownership of its mission, vision and values a company can encourage its employees to behave as committed players with a strong sense of belonging.

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