Diversity of Meaning

Meaning is the new money. A sense of purpose can get most of us excited and committed to the work we do. But there’s a complication: Currencies of meaning vary by individual. What you care deeply about might be different from what I value most.

Progressive companies work to understand what means the most to their employees. For instance, 3M conducted analysis among 3,500 high-potential employees and found eight clusters, each seeking a different meaning at work, including:

• In it for my life — those motivated by alternative work arrangements.

• In it to win it — those motivated by a challenging environment.

• In it to experience it — those motivated by stretch assignments.

• In it as Alpine ascenders — those motivated by rapid promotions.

Using these insights, 3M tailored programs to meet various employee needs.

Starbucks used a “need-states” survey and found similar segments, including:

• Working mainly to support other passions, like art or skiing.

• Desiring a community-oriented, socially responsible employer.

• Wanting long-term career advancement within Starbucks.

Although some preferences cut across groups, such as flexibility and tuition reimbursement, the reasons behind these needs differ based on the role work plays in each person’s life.

Edgar Schein, a former professor at the MIT Sloan School, pioneered work in this area in the 1980s, identifying “career anchors,” or variations on meaning that represent the core of an individual’s desired work experience. His anchors included security and stability, competence, entrepreneurial creativity, pure challenge, autonomy, service or dedication to a cause, and lifestyle.

The exact categorization is not the issue. Notice how the same themes thread through each analysis — the nature of the work, security, challenge, material success, flexibility and so on. The key is to understand what it means to work in your organization and to enhance that meaning in every way possible.

Here’s a quick overview of ideas, based on my own research.

Expressive legacy: Some individuals care deeply about the nature of the work. They enjoy being entrepreneurial, hardworking and creative. For them, emphasize: the work’s purpose; individual latitude — the ability to do things their way; the requirement for ingenuity; and opportunities to learn and grow.

Secure progress: Others care about upward mobility and long-term stability, particularly financial security. They seek clear developmental career paths, steady, predictable routes to success. Offer: a stable work environment; a compensation package that is highly predictable, and excellent benefits, including a solid retirement package; work with structure and routine; and clearly defined career paths, with appropriate training to support advancement at each stage.

Individual expertise and team victory: Some crave being a valuable part of a winning team. They value cooperation and competence. Emphasize: teaming with others — make sure the underlying operating model of the organization is built around the need for collaboration; work that leverages each individual’s strengths; well-run projects; competent colleagues; and an upbeat, fun culture, based on strong relationships.

Risk with reward: Others are adrenaline junkies, pure and simple. Work is about challenge, change and perhaps wealth. These individuals have lives filled with adventure and see work as one way to experience a thrill. Offer: opportunities for personal financial upside; flexible work arrangements based on individual preference; opportunities to choose assignments and change tasks frequently; and exposure to bright people and recognized thought leaders.

Flexible support: For some, work is a source of livelihood, but not a priority. Individuals place high value on environments that support life balance. Emphasize: highly flexible work arrangements, including options for self-scheduling and virtual work; generous vacation and options for unpaid leave; cafeteria-style benefit programs including child care, elder care and other options based on individuals’ specific needs; work with well-defined routines — the ability to plug in and out again with ease; and congenial and empathetic work environments.

Understanding the diversity inherent in the meaning of work to people in your organization is the best way to drive engagement and commitment.

Tamara J. Erickson is the founder and CEO of Tammy Erickson Associates and author of “Retire Retirement.” She can be reached at editor@diversity-executive.com.