>Five Ways To Motivate Employees With Meaning

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By Andy Blumenthal
(Published in Information Management)


Employees need to be motivated to perform. No, not just with money, and not even with a pat of the back (although both can go a long way to demonstrate appreciation for a job well done).

People need to know that their efforts have meaning and effect—i.e. that they are not in vain. This can have some of the biggest impact of all on motivating behavior, because people inherently want to be productive human beings and for their life to have some ultimate significance. This concept was best portrayed by Victor Frankl, the Holocaust survivor who wrote In Search of Meaning, and it is the basis of logotherapy, which has been shown to help sufferers of terminal illnesses better cope with the remainder of their lives.

When people at work feel that they have no chance to succeed, they may cease to find meaning in their efforts. This can lead them to decrease their engagement at work instead of going all out to prove themselves. As the Wall Street Journal noted in a recent article, this is what happens when golfers compete with extremely superior rivals like Tiger Woods, and they just “cave.”

Why this de-motivational reaction from people who care about doing their best?

From an IT perspective, this is like an Integrated Definition Function Model (IDEF 0) that examines input, process, output, and outcome: When loss is viewed as a predestined outcome, the process is seen as meaningless, and the input therefore as wasted. In the face of meaninglessness, people recoil to save their energy for something they feel that they can really have a shot at, rather than invest in something that they see as going nowhere.

If the above is true, then, why do some people “fight to the death” when their “backs are against the wall”?

My grandfather used to say, “Where there is life, there is hope.” Some people are able to confront what seem like insurmountable obstacles, and fight their way forward anyway.

This is the core theme of the “Rocky” character and the incredible success of the movie series. In every movie, Rocky represents the determination to succeed against all odds.

I believe that the essence of life is the search for an opportunity to make a meaningful difference, and when one is able to make a difference, that is inherently motivating. (And so of course, the opposite is true.)

So if you are a leader, and your employees are demoralized, how can you engage them so that they feel like their work makes a real and significant difference? Here are ways that work:

  • Visualize the end-state: Articulate for people a compelling vision and a clear set of goals as well as why they are important.
  • Take an incremental approach: Show people an incremental path forward; small wins can add up to big success.
  • Focus on the customer: Look together at positive downstream effects of their work on their customers (and other stakeholders).
  • Make use of their work products: No one wants to build “shelfware.” Demonstrate that you really do appreciate their efforts by actually using the work they generate.
  • Be a mensch: Treat people according to the Golden Rule; for example, it’s really a small thing to say “please,” “thank you,” ad even an occasional “how are you today?” By treating people with respect, you show that they are valued personally and professionally.

As a leader, what better way to motivate and drive personal and organizational success then to provide genuine opportunity to contribute of ourselves in a meaningful way, in a way where our efforts have an impact, are valued and valuable, and where everyone can succeed.

>Finding the Meaning In It All

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What a great, great article in the Wall Street Journal—Tuesday, July 14, 2009—“A New View, After Diagnosis” about how “cancer patients find meaning in the face of mortality…how can you live knowing that you’re going to die?”

To me, the article was inspiring, hopeful, and courageous.

A new therapy called meaning-centered psychotherapy addresses the question that cancer patients have: “How do I live in the space between my diagnosis and my eventual death.” And it answers the call with the philosophy of the Austrian psychiatrist and holocaust survivor, Victor Frankl, who taught, “people can endure any suffering if they know their life has meaning.

Meaning-centered psychotherapy works with cancer patients to make “the months or years of life that remain times of extraordinary growth” of “reconnecting with the many sources of meaning in life—love, work, history, family relationships,” and of resolving issues of our past.

Through spiritual well being, we can reduce our anxiety and fear of death and find meaning in life and the legacy we can leave behind.

No, this article wasn’t about work or technology or leadership per se and yet it was about all of them so much more.

How often do we go through our daily lives and question the meaning of it all? (What’s life really all about? What’s it all for? Why do we work so hard? Who really cares? What affect does it have in the end, anyway?)

In fact, all our lives we are searching for and desperately seeking spiritual meaning in what we do.

We are multi-faceted people. We have professional lives, families, friends, community, hobbies, and so forth. And we try to imbue spirituality in what we do every day—to elevate the mundane into the holy—to make the meetings, reports, bills, dirty diapers, dishes, and laundry, meaningful.

Recently, one of my friends who is looking for a new job (in this tough economy) said to me, “I want to find a meaningful job.” And I asked him “what is meaningful to you?” He answered “I’m not sure, but I’ll know it when I see it.”

It seems that we all cognizant of the short time we have here on earth and we want to make the most of it. Yet, despite all the people, activity, and things (“technology toys” or otherwise), we still are not sure what exactly “meaningful” means.

Is the answer really simple and straightforward–is it our good deeds, loving our neighbors as ourselves, and serving our maker? Well yes, of course, but we also have an inherent need to see that there is some positive end-result to our life’s work—a legacy that transcends us. Whether it is through our children and grandchildren that carry onward after us, charitable gifts or trusts that helps feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, or treat the ill, or having a positive influence on the people and society around us—inspiring, motivating, leading, and creating a better world.

Certainly, with a cancer patient, at the crossroads of the life and death, meaning must be found now or lost for all time. Others, not facing imminent death, have more time to explore, experiment, and search for the meaning in their lives. In the end, all of us desire to leave this world with a clear conscience knowing that we did our best, and left the world and the people in it that we touched, better off than had we not lived at all.