While happiness at work makes people smarter, more engaged and more productive, people also have a similar but distinct need to achieve a sense of meaning in what they do. Happiness is about the self; feelings of meaning at work arise from the social context. The feeling that what you do has meaning beyond your own gratification is cultural. It is confirmed by satisfying a cultural set of values. In a society, it’s noticed and confirmed by others. Meaning is associated with giving more than taking, with contributing to something bigger than oneself.
Assuming that it’s good for employees to find meaning in their work, how can employers encourage that? What reinforces an employee’s sense of belonging to something greater than him- or herself? The answer is found in the social behavior of expressing appreciation and gratitude. The two go hand in hand: Appreciation means recognizing work well done. Gratitude is a bit more personal than appreciation — it means expressing thanks for a benefit one has received.
Appreciation and gratitude are powerful forces among employees because they satisfy the higher psychological needs of individuals and the higher social needs of groups. They confer meaning on actions because they show an action is either recognized as valuable (appreciated) or personally beneficial (gratitude) or both. This is a big deal in managing because it makes the workplace a source of meaning. As appreciation builds a healthy culture, gratitude promotes a healthy workforce (and not just in terms of physical health). It’s tempting to underestimate this simple truth about human beings: giving thanks benefits both giver and receiver.
Engagement is the HR hot topic of the decade. First, a definition: Engagement at work is the willingness to give discretionary effort to a job. It means voluntarily doing more than the minimum. It is an attitude confirmed by behavior. An engaged employee is aligned to strategy and committed to delivering on his or her goals as well as the strategic goals of the company. Engaged employees are important contributors to the company’s culture and continually reinforce values that support the company mission as well as the bottom line.
The HR consultancy Towers Watson suggests that the way to sustain engagement is to see that a workforce is enabled (has an environment that supports productivity and performance with the right equipment, knowledge, help and other resources) and energized (has a sense of individual, physical, interpersonal and emotional well-being at work).
Empowerment and encouragement are additional factors that nurture and sustain engagement over the long run. Empowerment transfers the power to achieve results from the manager to the employee. Empowerment is the foundation of accountability — that is, deliveringon commitments. Encouragement costs practically nothing — a word, a bit of recognition, a gesture of appreciation or gratitude — yet it literally “gives courage” to an employee to act again, to go beyond the minimum, to break out of the sterile job requirements, to take risks, and to make the extra effort that defines engagement in the first place.