Managers: It's Your Job to Make Work Meaningful

Last Updated Apr 22, 2010 1:01 PM EDT

Before you write off that disaffected member of your team, ask yourself what's causing his or her malaise. If the job doesn't offer a lot of internal rewards -- the good feelings that come from helping others or contributing to society -- look for ways to create them. For most employees, finding meaning at work isn't just a job perk: it can be the key to productivity.

That's the message of the forthcoming book, The Why of Work, by Ross School of Business professor Dave Ulrich and psychologist Wendy Ulrich. The duo spent ten years interviewing thousands of workers across industries and seniority levels. Recently, Dave Ulrich spoke to me about their work, touching on how managers can create meaning for employees -- even in seemingly unrewarding jobs. BNET: Is it realistic to expect all work to be meaningful?

Ulrich: You don't have to discover the cure for cancer to find meaning in your work. As a boss, it's your job to become a meaning maker for every member of your team. People find purpose in work even at jobs that might be considered relatively meaningless, like making coffee at 7-Eleven or transporting porta-potties, to use two recent examples of highly productive workers from the reality show Undercover Boss.

BNET: What makes brewing coffee meaningful?

Ulrich: For Delores, the 7-Eleven employee responsible for the fact her store sells 2,500 more cups of coffee a day than any other location, meaning came from her relationships with customers. She knew them all by name. As a boss, you need to identify the signature strengths that each member of your team brings to work.

BNET: How do you do that?

Ulrich: It's pretty simple. Listen to your direct reports. Give them a range of assignments and see which they handle best. Notice when they seem comfortable: When do their eyes light up?

BNET: How can managers get better at making those observations?

Ulrich: It helps if you don't isolate yourself, like many leaders do. Look at your calendar. Figure that in the next four weeks, you'll spend 200 hours -- or whatever it is -- at work. Ask yourself who you'll spend that time with. Customers? Employees? Recognize that despite the benefits of interacting through social media, nothing replaces face-to-face contact. Create an environment that lets your direct reports know you're in it together.

BNET: What can you do to create that sort of workplace?

Ulrich: It doesn't have to be a major initiative. I recently worked with a company that had just been through a downsizing. A boss there made it a practice to bring cookies to meetings. He paid for them himself. Everybody likes cookies.