Cash, Career, and Calling: Why DO People Work?

Three key reasons people work are for cash, a career, and/or a calling.  Mike Morrison from Toyota Motor Sales put together the Meaning Meter.  If you come to work only for cash, it’s a start; you do what you have to do, but your meaning meter is not high.  If career advancement is your primary objective, it is certainly a responsible activity to work at bettering your position in life; but again, your meaning meter may be low.  However, if you come to work because the contribution you are making is a unique contribution to a higher purpose, your meaning meter rises. Today, one thing we know for certain: young people coming into the workforce want a high meaning meter!      

As leaders move people up the meaning meter, they create higher engagement, higher commitment, more innovation, and ultimately better financial results.  Why?  Because people put their hearts and souls into their work.   

A transformational leader is one who transforms what is potentially mundane work into purposeful, inspirational work. You may have heard the medieval story of the two stone masons carrying huge blocks of stone from the quarry.  A bystander asks the first man, “What are you doing?” and the man says, “I’m carrying this heavy stone and I have to cut it later in the heat of the day.”  The bystander then walks down the road and asks the next man, “What are you doing?” The man looks up proudly and says, “I’m building a cathedral.”  

In this story, the first man has a boss focused on getting the stone cut and pays for performance per stone.  The second man’s  boss focused on why the stone was being cut, engaging every employee around a noble effort.  The first boss is tough minded and expects an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay.  The second boss knows that as the culture of meaning is created, there is a higher chance the work people do will be exceptional, done with love and care.  

If you want to optimize the potential of your people, raise the meaning meter.  Create the knowledge, feeling, and belief people come to work for a greater purpose than just money and career.  For example, a health care provider taught all of the nurse’s aides about the power of connecting with patients.  Instead of just changing bed pans and doing routine checks on patients, the company invested in training around the soft skills of what they considered a “sacred calling” - taking care of people at their most vulnerable moments.  Nurse’s aides became important care providers in the overall chain of human healing.   As a leader, think through how to humanize and elevate the interactions of each and every activity.  You are inspiring people to a consistent and committed purpose.  

Three initial practices to get you started follow. 

1. Always start by engaging employees around the values.  Research from MIT Sloan points out that most companies have values, but the true leader  emphasizes these values as core to the culture.  For instance, if you are in health care and your value is to put the patient first, then all communication must put this priority front and center.  If financial goals are given prominence, they will displace the purpose-driven goals of the company. In other words, emphasize that the financials results are a natural consequence of focusing on your core values. 

2.  Start every major management review with a story of how a customer’s life was impacted by your product or service.  Ask a couple of people to come prepared to share their story.  At board meetings, don’t start with the financials.  

3.  Start with a review of how you are achieving your core purpose as a company: why you exist.  Ratan Tata, the recently retired CEO of the Tata Group in India says that purpose is “a spiritual and moral call to action; it is what a person or company stands for.”  People in your company want to buy into something they believe in.  They want to make money, but they also want to create a meaningful place to work, a stronger community, and a better world.  If you don’t model this, you are stuck with employees there to make cash and build a career, both of which are good enough. But is that enough for you? With courageous action, you can inspire people to engage their hearts and souls in a clear sense of purpose.