• Productivity could be increased five times if employees experience the ‘meaning quotient’, according to McKinsey.
  • No matter their role, employees need to have a sense of meaning in their work.
  • Businesses need to identify and articulate their sense of purpose – beyond the obvious profit motive.
  • Stakeholders want businesses to tackle the big challenges we face, creating opportunities for corporate purpose to do good in the world.

Should you expect to find meaning in the job that you do? Many occupations naturally lend themselves to it: healthcare workers, religious and spiritual advisors, emergency services personnel and many more work in roles where a sense of fulfilment seems to be hardwired into the job description.

It needn’t stop there, though. McKinsey believes that any job has the capacity to be meaningful. More than that, ensuring workers find meaning in the jobs they do could help boost happiness and productivity.

Why we need the ‘meaning quotient’

As far back as 2016, a PwC survey found that 83% of employees ranked finding meaning in their day-to-day jobs as one of the three most important characteristics of work.

Finding meaning matters to employees.
Finding meaning matters to employees.
Image: PwC

McKinsey defines the 'meaning quotient' (MQ) as the extent to which people find purpose in their job. It suggests that along with IQ (intelligence quotient) and EQ (the emotional quotient) MQ could increase people’s regular rate of productivity five times over.

“The opportunity cost of the missing meaning is enormous,” the consultancy says in a blog post titled 'Increasing the ‘meaning quotient’ of work'. “When we ask executives during the peak-performance exercise how much more productive they were at their peak than they were on average, for example, we get a range of answers, but the most common at senior levels is an increase of five times.”

Get into the groove

It might feel like a bit of a stretch, but McKinsey likens the pursuit of meaning at work to being in the zone, or in the groove. Terms like these tend to be more at home among musicians or elite athletes. But having a sense of purpose can, seemingly, bring out the best in anyone at work.

This was highlighted in a mini case study involving a cost-reduction programme at a large US financial-services company – and a change in the narrative being used by the company’s leaders.

To begin with, employees were told that expenses had been outpacing revenues and that changes were forthcoming. This approach is not unusual and stuck to the facts that mattered. Yet, “it was clear that employee resistance was stymieing progress” a few months into the change process, McKinsey writes.

The management team then tweaked the story and gave the efficiency drive a sense of purpose that went beyond purely financial considerations. They also highlighted possibilities for individual workers to experience a “once-in-a-career opportunity to build turnaround skills”.

Although the core objective of cost-cutting remained the same, internal opposition to it decreased, plus the programme went on to exceed initial expectations, McKinsey reports, achieving efficiency gains of 10% in its first year.

Translating meaning into action

Say what you mean and mean what you say is a well-worn adage that could be applied to the role of purpose in business. Businesses with a defined sense of wider purpose – for example, to be better global citizens, lessen our environmental impact, treat staff well – are well-placed to attract customers for whom such things are also important.

Far from merely being nice-sounding platitudes, statements of purpose are having a positive effect on the bottom line, according to Deloitte. But to do that, a business has to be able to take that sense of purpose, or meaning, and translate it into action.

Businesses should develop a purpose-led strategy.
Businesses should develop a purpose-led strategy.
Image: Deloitte

In an assessment of the consumer-brand group Unilever, Deloitte says: “The company measures the performance of its sustainable living products compared with the rest of its product portfolio and has found that these products are growing 69% faster [than] the other parts of the enterprise and delivering 75% of the company’s growth.”

More broadly, Deloitte says, there is an increasing expectation that businesses should help tackle some of the big challenges facing society. Citing the 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer Spring Update, which was completed during the early months of the pandemic, Deloitte says that almost nine out of 10 people in the US think the COVID-19 crisis should prompt the business community to do “right by their stakeholders”.