How Meaning Really Motivates

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Just about every framework of employee motivation tells us that a sense of meaning and purpose is what drives this precious internal energy.  There is no doubt that this explanation is solid and has scientific proof. The problem I see is not the concept of meaning driving motivation, but the advice most authors, speakers, and trainers give for how to help a person make meaning and connect to his or her purpose while on the job.

A person’s sense of meaning and purpose can only be defined by that person. It is not organizational mission, vision, program, or a set of values that give a person meaning or purpose. Rather, it’s the connection between a person’s internal sense of meaning and purpose with the organization’s sense of mission, vision, and values that can activate the motivation.

It seems easy to create this connection with employees since we assume we know what gives people meaning and purpose in life. However, recent research tells us that people find meaning and purpose in differing ways. There are many factors that drive our sense of meaning, purpose, and ultimately what we value.

Believe it or not, there are people who find purpose in building wealth over altruistic endeavors. I know we don’t like to think this is true, but it is. There are many who find meaning in tranquility and relaxation, while others are bored to tears or feel lazy pursuing these activities.

Some find meaning and purpose in saving and conserving resources while others find moderate or no meaning in these endeavors. Some find meaning in the continual pursuit of learning and understanding and others find it lacks fulfillment.

A popular myth of motivation is that we are all highly motivated by personal growth, social justice, or family-oriented activities. Many do find great meaning and sense of purpose in these, yet not all do.

Dr. Stephen Reiss of Ohio State University has spent the past two decades investigating the internal drivers of motivation. Through valid assessment of thousands of people around the world, his studies have derived 16 basic desires that drive our motivations, values, behavior, personality traits and sense of meaning and purpose.

Reiss and his colleague Susan Haverford’s investigated 320 desires that made up a base-line of possible human drives that would explain motivation. Through a process of confirmatory factor analysis this list was reduced to 16 motives that are significantly different than one another, are consistent across cultures, and have psychological significance. Here is the list of the 16 desires.

To truly appeal to each person’s sense of meaning and purpose, leaders must not overgeneralize what constitutes meaning to a group of people. Secondly, leaders must become familiar with each employee to better understand what is meaningful to that person and appeal to this meaning within the work environment. This may even involve moving a person to a job that better aligns to the person’s values and enables the person to better pursue his/her basic desires.

In my next post, I’ll share the 16 Factors that drive intrinsic motivation and that are core to what each of us find meaningful and give purpose to our lives.

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4 Comments on “How Meaning Really Motivates

  1. I think it’s far to assume that meaning in an important factor in motivation. Many of the people I talk to about why they dread getting up and going to work, usually say that they are in a dead end job, and day in – day out it’s the same old routine.

    Since our jobs take up so much of our time it is very important to know that personal growth is possible while maintaining responsibilities.

  2. Oh I know several people who put building wealth over altruistic endeavors. It has become a means of survival in this country. Everyone seems to be scrambling to make a buck weather their desires for meaning are getting met or not. Money seems to be one of the only motivators in this economy.

    1. Money can be a driver for some and yes maybe more now than ever because of the financial stress and materialism that is so prevalent. This falls into the motivation category of status. This doesn’t discount that people are intrinsically motivated by many other factors that bring meaning that may have nothing to do with money or altruism. For example, Social Contact, Curiosity, and Acceptance are very powerful internal desires that motivate action.

  3. My sense of purpose towards my family drives me every day. Even if we don’t feel like our job is going anywhere, we can find a core purpose for being there, and use that purpose to help move us forward on a day to day basis. I honestly can’t imagine having motivation without any underlying purpose behind it.

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