Before I started my own business, I had a really good job, but it wasn’t enough. I was an administrative/executive, had supportive co-workers, a comfortable workload and salary, consistently recognized for my work, selected and participated in leadership development programs, and I could literally walk to work.
However, it was missing something. I didn’t feel fulfillment in my work, or that my work was meaningful. So I started to feel stuck, and became disengaged. In the process I started looking for meaning outside of the organization, and eventually searched myself out entirely.
Like many other employees in this self-actualized modern work era I’ve been told by past teachers, career counselors, and every self-help guru that I should find meaning through my job.
My mantra for most of my professional career was, “Your work should be fulfilling, and if it isn’t then it’s not where you should work.” This concept of finding meaning at work, and the lack of information and misunderstanding of it, led me and probably countless others to leave a job and an organization that was probably a really good fit.
The idea that my work should “give” me meaning, as if it’s responsible for how I feel, is incredibly misleading. Emotions are internal, self-made. I’m responsible for the emotions I feel, not my boss, and especially not my employer. No talent management strategy is going to make me feel a certain way if I don’t personally believe it.
My experiences are not unique and represent a common and costly problem for organizations in today’s modern workforce. Employees are searching for meaningful work and feel that meaning is something they can find, or something an employer can give them.
Once an employee fails to find meaning or something happens to “take it away,” they become disengaged and an extremely expensive issue to an organization. An actively disengaged employee avoids doing work, negatively impacts the environment and other employees, and eventually will either quit or need to be fired, which then the employer has to bear the cost of hiring and training a replacement.
These all-to-common consequences occur because employees are operating under the wrong definition and perception of meaningful work.
So that brings up a very important question and the main purpose of this article, how can today’s organizations retain and engage with their employees that are seeking fulfillment from their job?
When I wasn’t working for my last employer, I stumbled across the field of job crafting, the science of altering aspects of a job to fit the personal needs of an employee. The goal of job crafting is to increase employee engagement and job satisfaction through personal accountability.
Fulfillment through job crafting
Job crafting empowers an employee to create meaning instead of hoping to receive it from an outside source. As a mid-level to senior level employee I never realized that I had the power to alter and perceive my job in a way that would have made me happier at work. I could have had a say in the actual work that I did every day, how I worked, who I worked with, and through a positive re-frame, cultivated meaning from every aspect of my job.
No one ever told me that, and despite all the effort my organization invested in retaining me, I left because of it. I needed my employer to tell me I was in control, and to prove to me that I was in control.
Employees, not the employer, are ultimately responsible for cultivating and finding meaning in the work that they do. Too often employees think the answer to finding meaning is in a different job.
The employee quits or “forces” their employer to fire them, then find’s a new job. It becomes a vicious cycle. The constant search to be “given meaning” by an employer and a specific job can only end in disappointment because meaning cannot be given.
Meaning is always crafted by the individual employee. An employer can create an opportunity for an employee to find meaning, but an employer cannot give an employee meaning.
Despite the employee’s responsibility and ownership of finding meaning for themselves, the brunt of the consequences when the employee doesn’t find meaning fall on the employer. The cost of turnover to an organization, especially of leaders and future leaders is too great to be ignored.
Thus, it is the responsibility of an employer to teach and empower their employees to craft their job in a way that is more meaningful to them and expose them to useful definitions and strategies on cultivating meaning in their current role.
An organization’s greatest retention strategy is empowering and educating its employees on taking responsibility for their own levels of happiness at work. The only thing an employer can actually give their employees is the power to craft a job they can love from a job they already have.