Searching for meaning in one’s work: the truth about employee engagement

The existential crisis of this millennium is around work.  Does it have meaning, value or purpose?  Why do we do what we do, and what contribution or difference will it all make when we’re gone?

Heavy stuff.    Especially as we reflect on the year as it comes to a close this Winter.  What does “belonging” have to do with “meaning” and connectedness?  And how does that relate to worker engagement?

Carolyn Jolly says, “Employee motivation isn’t really a mystery, but many managers seem to be mystified about it. Employees perform best when they are appreciated, comfortable and feel like they belong.” So we asked our users at WorkersCount whether they feel that they “belong” in their organization.  We found that only 54% feel that “magic” regularly.  And 16% even say it is a rare phenomenon.  

Given this, we are left with lots of questions. In particular, how should leaders and managers drive a greater sense of belonging and thereby improve engagement within their organizations?   So we kept asking. This time we asked a few experts, and they shared some interesting insights…

Belonging drives engagement; Small things count. 

One expert said “I would agree that workers need to feel they belong in order to be fully engaged. How do any of us feel when we know we belong?  We feel valued just for being who we are.  Managers can do many small things like smiling when someone comes into the room, saying Good Morning and Good Night, asking staff what they need from them as their boss to get their tasks done that day or being sure to spend time with employees when things are also going well instead of only when there is a problem!” 

Belonging makes us part of something bigger

“In very simplistic terms, whenever an employee has a sense of belonging to a team or work group and feel that their work provides value or has meaning I believe that engagement is possible. Part of the human condition wants to be part of something bigger than the individual.” 

Managers need to articulate value to employees

Pulling from research from Harvard Business School, another expert said this “shows clearly that possessing a sense of meaning in one's work is key to engagement. The best course of action for managers is to look for opportunities to articulate the value of their employees' work to their employees. While the meaning and values of some jobs is obvious, e.g. ER nurse, this is not the case with most jobs.  Managers should not assume employees fully understand the value and impact of their jobs. To remedy this, managers can regularly reinforce how valuable their employees are to any number of entities: the team, the organization, the customer, the community.  It doesn't matter, as long as employees understand their work matters and that message is consistently communicated.”

 Issue facing organizations is not apathy but rather futility

Another expert weighed-in on the Existential Crisis this way: “the terms "meaning", "belonging", "connectivity", etc. are focusing on attitudes, habits of thought, are they not? What is the role of accountability in engagement?  That it seems to me is a foundational component.  In his book "Team Covenant" Randy Hopkins makes the interesting point that apathy, as some writers may suggest, is not the core issue in engagement. Apathy suggests people don't care. People generally do care. The issue facing organizations is not apathy but rather futility. Futility occurs when people are not kept informed, they are not allowed to think and make decisions on their own about what they are doing, their creative problem solving is discouraged, and they have no voice. Employees who are told to be compliant rather than accountable see their role as futile and futility stands as a barrier to engagement.

Research looking into how we stay connected

Our final expert added on by saying “there is a growing interest and research into "how we stay connected" (I.e. belong) it concerns understanding how and the quality of the "relationships" that individuals form and maintain in the workplace. There are several studies that looked at hospitals and nurses in particular! My own research shows that "secure" relationships have significantly higher levels of engagement than those that are "insecure”. It's called Attachment Theory and is highly predictable in determining the strategies people use to stay connected (belong) at work and then, based on those strategies, you can determine their level of engagement. “


In these five different perspectives we see the heart of the problem is “belonging” in the context of many small, but very important things that any manager can start to do overnight.  And in that sense it is encouraging and exciting.  Engagement simply means recognition, empowerment and meaning.  If this is really the case, there is hope, and lots of it, for our millennial workers and our society at large.

And with 46% of those responding at WorkersCount not feeling the magic, it is a place for enlightened managers to start.   Low-hanging fruit for those who can open their eyes and see it.

What do you think?