Is Meaning Lost for Some People?

Cleaning gun
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

When it comes to finding meaning these days, some people seem to have given up looking. The work experience in too many cases has become a bitter pill of exchanging time for income. The year 2008, when the bottom fell out of the economy and businesses executed wholesale layoffs and budget cuts, was a tipping point for meaning at work for many people. The impact is still felt today and has been amplified by the pandemic. People began to lose their naiveté about their company’s loyalty to them as employees. The idealism of employees and culture coming first gave way to survival of the fiscally fittest. It’s been a huge blow to our psyche that has changed our hierarchy of needs at work.

The scar tissue of this change will likely last a very long time for the generation that experienced the betrayal. Leaders of organizations have been duped just as the people at the “doer level.” Many leaders believed the organization would be loyal to their employees no matter what, but the harsh economic reality betrayed the huge investment they made into shaping their culture around employee-centric values. Those values typically hang on the wall in a mocking irony to what people experience as the “true” values of the organization. People saw nothing but dollar signs mocking them as they walked out the door.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in earnest in 2020, workers again stopped to consider whether their work had a purpose that gave them the meaning they desired. All of sudden, working at home in a virtual world changed the equation and turbo-charged what was most important in their lives. Some rediscovered their families, and a sense of autonomous freedom that was a deal breaker to the previously assumed “9 to 5 and beyond” lifestyle in the office. The “Great Resignation” of job shifting resulted in hybridized work schedules to accommodate workers who were not willing to give up the newly amplified meaning they experienced, even through the worst of times. 

But without meaning there is no engagement. In many cases at the ground level, people’s confidence and optimism for finding meaning at work has lost out to a sense of self-preservation that now seeks personal safety and security first. This belief translates into the behavior of not making waves, not standing out for any particular reason, and certainly not taking any risks in that type of environment. People describe their situation using the warfare reference of being in the trenches, keeping their heads down, and cleaning their guns. We repeatedly see a high percentage of these disengaged people every year in the survey data if they feel stuck and without freedom.

Ironically, at a time when companies need innovation the most as a competitive advantage, their fearful cultures have all but pulled the plug on the motivation to try something new. In reality, it’s not a bad short-term strategy for some companies that have no other options; however, this book is for leaders and people looking for a long-term answer.

For the “have-not” cultures still out there in corporate America, a loud wake-up call is needed. The COVID-19 pandemic proved that the role of purpose and meaning has not lost its potency as a motivating factor; it has simply lost the badly needed attention that keeps it healthy and alive. 

If it feels far-fetched as a leader to amplify meaning, then you are inadvertently leaving a key driver of your business unattended and undernourished. If meaning is in the rear-view mirror, people will lose the impetus to do something great for themselves and their organizations. Engagement will take a beating, and performance will pay the price. We have an opportunity to amplify meaning and keep it front and center.