A Q&A With Emily Esfahani Smith, Lavin Speaker and Author of The Power of Meaning
Meaning, not happiness, is the key to a good life. That’s the vital message at the core of Emily Esfahani Smith’s book, The Power of Meaning, an essential guide to living a life that matters, as well as her popular TED talk—viewed over 7 million times—and her viral Atlantic article. In our recent chat with her, she explains how you can develop genuine cultures of meaning at work—and why you should.
What is your take on meaning as it relates to the workplace, to bosses and employees? Why does a company have to consider this in 2019? What’s the urgency?
Most people want and even expect their work to be meaningful. This is especially true of younger employees. As Studs Turkel wrote, "Work is about a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying." And yet, most people are miserable at work. According to Gallup, 85 percent of employees are either not engaged—that is, they feel uninvolved, uncommitted, and unenthusiastic about it—or are “actively disengaged” from their work, and less than half of all workers feel satisfied with their jobs. But when people have meaning at work, research shows they are more engaged, more productive, and far likelier to stay at their organizations. They realize that their daily tasks, no matter how menial, are making a positive difference in the world— and that, research has found, is a very potent motivating force. As research by Teresa Amabile of Harvard Business School has found, “Of all the events that can deeply engage people in their jobs, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work.”
What happens if companies don’t consider meaning?
Employees are disengaged, unmotivated, more burned out, and more likely to leave. According to Gallup, one consequence of disengagement is $7 trillion in lost productivity across the world. By pursuing purpose, companies are also helping the bottom line. In their book Conscious Capitalism, John Mackey of Whole Foods and Raj Sisodia of Babson College point out that purpose-driven firms that create cultures of meaning among their employees, customers, and society at large are on the rise, and they are financially outperforming their peers. That’s in part because consumers are seeking them out. As Sisodia has written with his colleagues, “People are increasingly looking for higher meaning in their lives, rather than simply looking to add to the store of the things they own.”
What do leaders need to know about meaning?
If they help their employees see how their work is meaningful, they will have more motivated and engaged employees who will do better work for them, feel better about the company, and be an asset to their firms. Also, there are tangible things that leaders can do to help, like telling redemptive/growth-oriented stories about the work everyone is doing or a setback a team experienced, and making sure that employees are connected to the positive impact of their work when possible. Wharton's Adam Grant has conducted research with colleagues showing that when people clearly see the positive impact of their work, they become more productive. In my book, I tell the story of Life is Good, which does this well: it shares at employee meetings the letters that customers send in, saying things like, "wearing your shirts helped me get through chemotherapy," for example.
What do individual employees need to know about meaning?
People are increasingly turning to work as a source of meaning. They expect their jobs to fill them with passion. They expect to find their one-true calling at work. But the truth is, only one-third of people see their work as a calling, according to research by Yale's Amy Wrzesniewski and her colleagues. And that's ok: Just because we don't all feel burning passion toward what we do doesn't mean we still can't find meaning in the work we do. In other words, there's a midway point between feeling like your work is a calling and feeling like your job is just a job. The way to find meaning in your work is by harnessing what I call the four pillars of meaning at work: belonging, purpose, transcendence, and storytelling. For belonging, a study of hospital cleaners by Wrzesniewski, Jane Dutton, and Gelaye Debebe shows how little moments of connection between staff make employees feel like their work is more meaningful. To build more purpose at work, (1) connect your day-to-day tasks to the larger goal of the organization (like helping clients or healing the sick) or to your own larger goals (growth, learning) and (2) adopt a service mindset. That is, remember how what you do serves others, whether it's your clients or your family whom you are supporting.
In terms of innovation and creativity—and generally getting the best out of employees—how does meaning fit in?
If people feel unmotivated at work, burned-out, existentially empty, like what they do doesn't matter, they are not going to be in the proper frame of mind to be innovative and creative. In my research for my book The Power of Meaning, I found that people were able to be the most creative and innovative when the work they were doing was meaningful to them. Also, the pillars can help people tap into their reserves of innovation and creativity. Storytelling is all about seeing old facts in new ways, i.e. interpreting the data in new and different ways. And transcendent experiences can realign the way we think to open up new avenues of thought that lead to innovation and creativity.
What is it you want to leave each employee thinking about differently?
I want them to feel empowered to craft meaning for themselves in their work, no matter what they do or where they work. Some people think that you have to work at a certain place or in a certain job to find meaning, but the truth is that we can find meaning in nearly any role we're in, depending on the mindset we adopt. With the stories and research I present, I want to give employees the tools to adopt a meaning mindset in their work.
To book Emily Esfahani Smith for your next event, contact The Lavin Agency, her exclusive speakers bureau.