To Inspire Good Work, Make Job Meaningful

CHICAGO ( TheStreet) -- Successful small-business owners think of their careers as far more than a job. They wouldn't have taken on the financial risk and stress that comes with a startup if they weren't motivated by a strong sense of mission.

But can the same be said for employees? The company may be the boss' baby, but workers who don't share in its purpose will be little help in moving the business forward. If you want to grow your company, you've got to find ways to make your employees as invested as you are.

"Meaning matters," says Dave Ulrich, a professor at the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business and co-founder of the consulting firm The RBL Group. His recent book The Why of Work, co-written with his wife, psychologist Wendy Ulrich, gives leaders specific tools for building meaning in the workplace from the executive suite on down.

"When employees find a sense of meaning in their work, they work harder at it," Ulrich says. "What would otherwise be a normal activity takes on much more where there is a sense of meaning associated with it. Think of a restaurant, movie, song or place that you shared with a loved one. The emotional appeal surrounding the activity gives it an increased sense of meaning."

When it comes to making work matter, smaller companies have some advantages over their larger competitors. They're more likely to be led by the person who started the company and has a personal stake in its success. Such leaders can influence their co-workers more immediately and effectively than middle managers at multinational corporations, who are many layers removed from the upper-level decision-makers.

"Share with your employees a sense of ownership and participation," Ulrich says. "Model for them what delights you about your company and what gives you passion."

The Ulrichs identified specific factors that create meaning for workers throughout an organization. One underlying theme is that job descriptions should be flexible enough to adapt to specific employees' strengths. A back-office worker with great people skills and a knack for problem-solving could be shifted to customer service. The in-house tech expert who uses Twitter in her spare time could be tapped to oversee the company's Facebook page or start a blog on its website.

Keeping duties flexible not only makes employees happier about coming to work, it gives them fresh challenges, which is another key to making a job meaningful. It also sends the message that each worker is appreciated as an individual, each bringing something different and useful to the team.

As a leader, you can only instill a sense of purpose in others if you feel it yourself. That means you must do some soul searching. What is your vision for the business? Why does it exist? How can your workers help shape that purpose and apply it to their daily tasks?

As an example, Ulrich cites Eco Scraps, a Utah-based startup that turns leftover food waste into organic fertilizer. "The founder was able to fully engage the hearts and minds of his employees because they shared his vision of how this company could connect to a broader social responsibility agenda," he says. "He involved his employees in decisions for the company, and he got them to care about what he was doing as much as he did."

Finally, remember the power of strong, supportive personal relationships. Just as family and friends create a meaningful personal life, supportive relationships at work make for a meaningful professional life.

"Create a positive work culture where you share successes, involve employees in decision making, have clear expectations and focus on what is right," Ulrich says. "When things work, celebrate and share successes, and when they don't, talk openly about what happened so you can improve."

Finally, one of the key factors the Ulrichs identified that makes a job more than a job is to not always take everything so seriously, an attitude companies such as Pixar Animation Studios and Zappos.com have won raves for. "Make work a place where your employees can demonstrate their personality," Ulrich says. "Have fun!"

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Elizabeth Blackwell is a freelance writer based in Chicago. She is the author of Frommer's Chicago guidebook and writes for The Wall Street Journal, Chicago and other national magazines.