Meaningful work
by Jim Keane

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I was speaking this week with a new CEO of a new public company that is just being spun off from their parent company. Imagine all the important tasks on his plate involving investors and customers. And yet he told me his top priority is getting his employees engaged in the mission of their new company and helping them see how their industrial products are really becoming technology products and playing an important role in the lives of their customers.


He’s not alone. Gallup tells us that 87% of global employees are disengaged, so it should be the top priority for every CEO. Since work is fundamental to the human experience, employee engagement is very relevant to topics being explored at this year’s Drucker Forum.


87%. How did this happen? Could it be that by creating efficient, repeatable, scalable business processes, we have engineered the meaning out of work?  We hire diverse people with different skill sets, and we ask them to do the same job, the same way as everyone else. We set up rules and metrics to reduce errors through conformity and drive productivity through incentives and punishments. We are hoping that being less bad will somehow make us good. We don’t dare to dream about being great. In fact, in these engineered workplaces, an employee would have to break the rules to do something remarkable.


It’s no wonder most employees are disengaged. We isolate people, and put them in standardized, uniform work settings that reinforce the idea that your unique wants and needs are not of importance to us. Regardless of what we might say in our speeches, the decisions and policies of facilities and HR deliver a clearer, stronger message to employees.


What if we’ve reached the end of the S-curve that attempts to compete, by engineering processes that even disengaged workers can do adequately? How terrifying would it be to face a new competitor who has 87% engaged workers, who know exactly when and how to break the rules? What if they discovered that connecting people leads to faster innovation than isolating them? What if they really leveraged the diversity in their workforce to solve the global/local paradox and other issues we all face?


Many CEOs are aware of the problem and are working to improve employee engagement, starting with new programs aimed at wellbeing or offering flexible work hours. But a new program may not be the answer. Tom Rath, author of “Fully Charged,” has a theory about happiness. He says that if you seek happiness, you won’t find it. However, if you seek meaning, you will find happiness. The same applies to engagement. If you seek engagement directly, you may not find it. If you lead people to find meaning, perhaps you will.


We believe there are three specific types of meaning to consider:


  • Meaningful work: What is the impact my organization has on the lives of customers and society?  How am I uniquely contributing to that purpose?
  • Meaningful connections: How do we make it easier for employees to connect with their colleagues around the world?  How do we deepen existing relationships to build a strong social fabric within the organization?
  • Meaningful progress: How can we help people feel a sense of accomplishment and help people feel they are making an impact?


Satya Nadella, the CEO at Microsoft, once said in an interview, “One of the things that I’m fascinated about generally is the rise and fall of everything from civilizations to families to companies. There are very few examples of even 100-year old companies. For us to be a 100-year old company where people find deep meaning at work, that’s the quest.”


What do you think it will take for organizations to help people find that kind of meaning in their work – whether they are long established businesses, or new start up companies?  How do you think about the significance of your own work? Reflect on when you were most engaged and discovered a sense of meaning.


Abouth the author:

Jim Keane is President and CEO of Steelcase, the global leader in the office furniture industry, and a member of the boards of Rockwell Automation and IDEO.


  1. Hi Jim.
    thank you for laying out these important link between engagement and meaning and the predominantly leadership task to engage.

    When we understand “engaging people” as a action, where we have to push them in a certain direction, also known as to motivate them, to get them in motion, it can get pretty exhausting over time. No wonder, that not too many corporate organism are here to excel and drive over a longer period, as Satya Nadella states.

    When we see the task of engaging though not so much as an action towards people, but much more a tending the collective organism of people, things are changing.

    Meaning is said to be the art of self-discovery. That’s one reason why little children do not have an engagement issue, they are from dawn till dusk discovering, self, others and the world around them. They are living in a meaningful cosmos.

    As leaders we have the opportunity to tend the cosmos of people in our care in such a way, that what they do, becomes meaningful to them.

    Generate meaning then, is not mainly a task of providing content and motivating, but much more of laying out a framework in which people can discover themselves (wow, thats what I’m able to bring foreard), each other (well, have to admit, we came to this solution together) and the world (real communication, with customers for example). Discovery comes along with research, hearing, listen, play, create, innovate, collaborate, choosing and even with ownership and resposibility. Its potentially abundant. When we can act out of our own ability to create and co-create, engagement will not be an issue.

    Leaders have the challenge and privilege to create such a situation for others, given he or she is acting in a cosmos of meaning him- or herself. If thats not the case at all, I would suggest to go back to field own for a while: self-discovery. 😉

  2. …interesting topic for sure…I’ve just started reading a book, H3 Leadership:Be Humble, Stay Hungry, Always Hustle by Brad Lomenick, the first chapter is about self-discovery…which seems to be a contributor to employee engagement…here’s a couple of quotes/questions of the first chapter…

    …Influencers should lead from the inside out so that their identity shapes their leadership rather than the other way around…

    …Unless one is rooted in his identity, he can never become a change maker….

    …know who you is the foundation for being great….

    …What do you prioritize? What energizes you? What grounds you in a sense of purpose?…

    …Your identity is not what you do. It’s who you are. And identity always comes before activity.

    The point here is don’t start by looking to the company to improve your engagement, start first with knowing your identity….it’s not about what you’re doing, but who you are and who you’re becoming….

  3. What a tremendous challenge for managers of people to balance “efficient, repeatable, scalable business processes” with a “construct” around those needed processes, while enabling people to engage and find meaningful work in them. I believe good attitudes toward change and things like LEAN are built over time when people feel they are a part of the decisions being made that effect their engagement. Once understanding of meaningful changes are established, attitudes change and people engage and can find some joy in their efforts. I believe when people managers get their hands dirty in the run the business grind, they set an example and the folks they manage want to engage and attitudes change. All this can help develop a construct for a win-win.

  4. Hello Jim,

    I am a contract employee at one of your manufacturing plants. Help me to understand how I can find meaning in my work when I am not even an employee of your company. Saving money on employee benefits and simplifying the job of your HR department in telling me to leave if I am no longer needed seems to be a much higher priority than engagement.

  5. Very inspiring – a good reminder to re-evaluate and check in with yourself, making sure you are still engaged and are doing everything you can to make sure this shows in your work. But even when leaders offer flexible hours, wellness perks, comfortable, creative environments, and actual, meaningful work; I believe it’s also up to the individual employees to care… to be at the point in their career that they care about meaningful work; not just a paycheck or title; care about being thoughtful, care to own their projects and accomplishments. They are responsible for their happiness and seeking out meaningful work. There are so many amazing places to work, doing amazing things, allowing people to break the rules… it is the responsibility of the employee to engage themselves in it.

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