Meaning Is the New Money

A successful commitment to diversity challenges organizations to meet two goals that may seem contradictory: to embrace individuals’ diversity and bind them together into an effective organization.

The first requires that we acknowledge and welcome our differences, and that we value an organization composed of people who bring different skills, perspectives and backgrounds. As leaders, we work to acknowledge uniqueness and help each person feel included.
But the second challenge is equally important, particularly as collaboration and knowledge sharing become critical components of success in many of our businesses today. We must find the tie that binds us all together — an effective way to create a sense of cohesion among the disparate members of our community.

Under an industrial model, the tie that bound employees to the organization and served as the common denominator among all the individuals was money. The norms of an organization were enforced through compensation. Regardless of race, gender or any other diversity measure, employees agreed to work harder in pursuit of a monetary goal.

However, as we move to business models that depend on people working together, innovation, individual expertise and craft and crowds contributing to the whole, we must question our traditional concepts of money as the core. Today’s work requires an individual’s discretionary effort — people have to choose to offer creative ideas, share knowledge and provide extraordinary service. They must dig deep within themselves to form innovative ideas and put their best thinking forward.

Money is not a motivator of this type of discretionary effort, nor does it bind a community into a collaborative whole. There is no correlation between traditional compensation and performance management approaches and people’s willingness to be more creative, more service-oriented with customers, to ponder the challenges they face with greater focus and energy and to be more emotionally contagious and proud. Added to the shift in work’s nature, many younger employees are less motivated by money than by the connection they feel to the work.

My research has found that high levels of discretionary effort occur when our work experiences reflect a clear set of values that we share with colleagues. Individuals are bound together into an effective organization when they have common values. Today, meaning is the new money — it’s what people are looking for at work and what works to create organizational cohesion. Clear company values, translated into the day-to-day work experience, are one of the strongest drivers of an engaged workforce — one primed for successful knowledge work.

As the role of money as the primary link between workers and corporations and as the primary motivator falls away, it becomes essential for organizations to answer the question: What does it mean to work here? It becomes less important to be all things to all people and more important to attract and retain people who value what you have to offer. The role of leadership shifts from adopting and enforcing best practices to crafting unique experiences that reinforce the organization’s values.

Happily, we don’t all value the same thing. It is likely, whatever your company values, that there are individuals who care passionately about the same things. Some of us live for the adrenaline rush of the next big sale or the intellectual satisfaction of discovering something new. Others cherish the camaraderie of friends and sense of belonging within a warm and family-oriented organization.

Successful companies find the authentic work core in their organization and create ways to amplify and extend the experience to all employees. They have an image, reputation and legends that lead intelligent people to surmise that the employee experience will be congruent with their personal preferences and values. Prospective employees perceive the employee experience will include things they care about. Current employees see the values reflected in the company’s day-to-day operations, management behaviors and in their own employee experience. They are regularly reminded why they chose to work for this organization in the first place.

Meaning becomes the tie that binds disparate individuals together.

Tamara J. Erickson is the author of What’s Next, Gen X? Keeping Up, Moving Ahead, and Getting the Career You Want. She can be reached at editor@diversity-executive.com.