The quest to keep employees motivated is a never-ending one.

But that quest is even further challenged when we realize that 70 percent of employees are actually disengaged at work, let alone motivated.

The key to turning this problem on its head may lie in new research from BetterUp. Their study of 2,285 employees shows that, on average, employees would give up an astonishing 23 percent of their total future lifetime earnings in exchange for one thing–work that is always meaningful.

That translates into an average annual sacrifice in earnings of $21.1K per year until retirement. Willingness to give up 23 percent of income is remarkable considering the average American spends 21 percent of their income on housing. It turns out the staples of life are food, clothing, shelter, and meaningful work.

So as a leader, how can you create meaning at work for others (and yourself)?  Here are seven ways that I detailed in Make It Matter, what I call the “Markers of Meaning:”

1. Help your team understand their purpose and show them that their work matters.

Carve out time for employees to explore the purpose–or profound why –of what they do. A study of lifeguards showed they performed better when they were told about other lifeguards who saved lives, rather than when told about how learning lifeguarding skills would benefit them later in life.

So gather stories of how your employees’ work helps others, even in small ways, and encourage them to share their own stories. Re-frame the work your team is doing so they can understand how and why what they do matters.

2. Commit to crafting a learning environment that energizes employees and maximizes their personal growth.

Make space for your team to create and execute their own learning plans, offering help along the way. Understand their different learning styles, have patience and empathy for the learning process (and tolerance for mistakes), invest in coaching them, and provide experiences for growth with immediate opportunities for practice. 

3. Be intentional about building self-esteem so others feel valued and valuable.

Don’t underestimate any low levels of self-esteem in the workplace. I’ve found in my own surveys that 93 percent of employees say they’ve suffered a hit to their self-esteem in the past year based on something that happened at work.

By being intentional about making employees feel valued as individuals, in turn they’re more likely to live up to their potential value in the workplace. Competence follows confidence.

4. Involve the troops in decisions to net a sense of control, and grant autonomy liberally. 

Micromanagement can be a meaning-killer. Including your employees in decisions and giving them space to get the job done helps them feel less like numbers and more like contributors.

Research shows that when employees have greater levels of autonomy, they’re better able to use their personal attributes to contribute to job performance–a deeply meaningful experience.

5. Create a caring and authentic culture where people feel free to bring their whole self to work.

You care about your personal family and friends, but what about your work family, whom you probably see the most? While you most likely care quite a bit, it’s important to show up that way. 

Show warmth, an interest in their well-being, and a desire to connect. Make time for them, especially when you don’t have it. They’ll notice. Listen– really listen. It’s what caring human beings do. And role-model bringing your whole self to work– you’ll give employees permission not to check their identities at the door.

6. Help others see where they fit in the mission and that they’re critical for achieving it.

Your employees will never think their work matters if they don’t know that they matter. Enroll them in the long-term vision and how they fit in it–beyond the org chart. Connect the dots for them by specifically explaining how their work fits into the mission.

Research shows when disengaged employees were asked what would improve their performance, the top answer by a long shot was “greater clarity about what the organization needs me to do–and why”.

7. Free the workplace from corrosive behaviors that serve as barriers to the best self.

You can work hard to create a meaningful workplace and then blow it all up by unintentionally engaging in corrosive behaviors. The most meaning-draining include indecision, inconsistency, mismanaging change, creating rework, listening poorly, and allowing negativity and excessive internal competitiveness to continue. Be aware of these most corrosive behaviors and cut them off. 

The best scenario is that employees don’t actually forfeit a quarter of their salary for meaningful work. What says we leaders can’t give them this one for free?

Note: This article contains affiliate links that may earn a small fee on purchases originating from them. They do not influence’storial decisions to include mention of any products or services in this article.

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