Why Meaning Motivates Us MORE Than a Paycheck.

If getting paid is the main motivation, then why are so many people stressed, anxious, and burned out, regardless of salary?

Why do you go to work every day?

The obvious answer is the paycheck. But if getting paid is the main motivation, then why are so many people stressed, anxious, and burned out, regardless of salary? We often think the carrot matters the most to our workplace satisfaction. If it wasn’t for the money, you would likely be doing something else, right? Or at least, that’s what you think.

Take for example this one research study, which analyzed 57 potential factors influencing employee turnover across 669,000 people. The researchers found only a small correlation or statistical significance between salary and employee retention. Instead, factors such as career growth, learning and development, and fairness seemed to matter a lot more. Money certainly mattered, but at least within the data, not nearly as much as other things.

This research paints a much more complicated and nuanced story around our motivations at work. Most people are seeking to do more than just make a paycheck. Many of us no longer live in a state of scarcity and are actively climbing up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to find deeper meaning and purpose in and through our work, but often our workplaces and even our own thinking hasn’t quite caught up. Most presume that getting that pay raise will make them feel happier and more fulfilled. But when they get it, they often don’t feel any differently over the long run.

People can be immensely driven by the perception that they are making an impact in their work for a broader cause. Many are desperately looking to see that their work actually matters to someone–that they are making the world a better place because of their work. Whether we realize it or not, most people get out of bed each morning less because of the paycheck and more because of the impact they feel they bring to others.

And when that impact piece is missing at work, it typically doesn’t matter how much money you make or how many times you switch jobs. Your ability to sustain engagement in your work could ultimately suffer. As we discussed before, people are social beings that tend to thrive when helping, collaborating, and benefiting others. Most need a purpose, a why, behind what we do that connects back to others and to our own values.

It’s not always easy to uncover our why, especially when we might still believe that we are driven by other motivators. But here are four things you can try to potentially connect deeper with your work and the meaning behind it.

Identify your why. It can be startling to realize that many of us may not know why we are doing what we do every day. Your why is unique to you–only you can define it. Take the time to understand it and connect it to other parts of your life including your work, your organization, and broader society. Your why drives you beyond the paycheck. For many, the paycheck is simply a means or an enabler for a deeper reason to work. Identify this reason and post it somewhere visible (or set a digital reminder) to keep this front and center throughout your day.

Take off your badge of busyness. If you are always busy, try looking at what you are doing and how it aligns to your values. Are you putting your energy towards your purpose? If not, your busyness is likely taking away from your engagement and productivity, not adding to it. For many of us, we’ve designed careers based on busyness and not value add. Stop trying to look so busy and focus only on what’s important for a week and see what happens.

Focus on value add and learning activities. The research continues to show that the most engaged employees are those that are actively engaged in learning and growing. Developing new skills and accomplishing goals can help us feel more fulfilled and successful in both work and life. Many times we unintentionally plateau. But as humans we are wired to create, learn, and grow. Get outside your comfort zone and consider a stretch assignment within your organization.

Build relationships. In order to connect to your work and see the impact you are having, you have to build relationships with your colleagues, customers, leaders, and community. Jump on the phone, go to lunch, or grab a coffee. Engaging your network will help you see how your work matters.

As we each seek to make a difference in our work, pay will only take us so far. Connection, purpose, and learning could take us much further. 

Find ways to cultivate meaning in your work and life with the Defining your purpose infographic.

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