A research study by Wharton Professor Adam Grant demonstrates how giving your team the gift of "task significance" and meaning effectively boosts their productivity and motivation. You can do this simply by explaining how and why their work is important.

My first job was as an industrial engineer for an apparel company. My overall mission was to develop ways to "make a t-shirt cheaper." At first I enjoyed the challenge, but soon my motivation and productivity waned. I disengaged and began dreaming of a new job.

My manager noticed this and sent me to Mexico to experience life as a sewing machine operator assembling t-shirts in a maquiladora. Through the first-hand experience, the meaning of my job shifted from "make a t-shirt cheaper" to "make a t-shirt more efficiently for all," which meant all parties can mutually benefit--the customers buying it and the operators sewing it.

My productivity, focus and dedication increased after that trip.

"Meaning" is the Ultimate Employee Retention Strategy.

Money, managers and promotion paths are still important; but if you want to increase employee productivity, engagement and even their struggle over the decision to resign when a better opportunity comes along, give their jobs meaning.

Meaning is defined as "implied or explicit significance." Things with meaning are prioritized and stay on top of your mind.

So leaders can add meaning to the roles of those on their team and increase productivity and employee retention. What I needed early in my career was to add significance by shifting from "how to make a t-shirt cheaper" to "how to make a t-shirt matter".

Research that Shows Why Meaning Matters

The Wharton research study by Adam Grant demonstrated the power of task significance in a high burnout field in just a 5-minute interaction. They had the university call center operators talk to a student scholarship recipient in person for five minutes. During those five minutes, questions were asked about the student's studies and the team got to see how their work tangibly affected someone's life. The brief interaction delivered a tidal wave of task significance and performance shot through the roof.

The result was a 171 percent increase in money raised and a 142 percent increase of time spent on the phone. Thirty days later, the operators were still performing at high levels. They worked longer hours, got better results, and it lasted.

This simple five-minute strategy works so well because it:

  1. Help employees understand the impact of their work
  2. Feel appreciated for their efforts
  3. Experience empathy for their customers.

The best part, of course, is when you give your team a boost of team significance, you also give it to yourself.

Add meaning for your team with these five simple strategies. Everyone reaps the productivity benefits.

1. Brainstorm a meaning reminder list

For 5-minutes, brainstorm ways your team's work impacts your customers. Discuss these in your next staff meeting, then ask the team to brainstorm additional ideas. Share the compiled list with your team, and ask them to hang it in prominent place in their office as reminder.

2. Collect testimonials

Grant did another study where lifeguards read examples of when lifeguards had saved their lives. Their hours worked shot up 40 percent. Use this strategy by asking your customers how your team has positively impacted them. Then send one a week to your team on Monday morning, and/or read it in your staff meetings.

3. Team interview with a customer

Just like Adam Grant did in his study with the call center, invite a customer to your next staff meeting. Ask them to share an example of when your team did something that really helped them, and allow your team to ask them questions.

4. Take a walk in your customer's shoes

Make a list of your top three customers both inside and outside the organization. Try job shadowing or at least coordinating a visit to their office for the team.

5. Add philanthropy

Sometimes it may not be easy to add task significance in your meeting or customer interactions due to time constraints. In these situation allow them to volunteer a day or afternoon of their time to a philanthropy outside of work to give back to their community.