We might not consciously look for meaning at work, but clearly something about working life fulfills a human need. Why else would surveys consistently find that if we are asked what we would do if we won the lottery, most of us say that we would choose to continue working?
It’s natural that organisations want employees to feel that their work is meaningful, but they should tread carefully. People like to find their own meaning, by reference to what matters most to them as individuals, and organisational efforts to force the issue can lead to cynicism.
In my research with Adrian Madden I interviewed 135 people in a wide range of jobs. What we found shed light on how individuals find meaning, as well as the role played by managers and organisations in shaping and destroying individuals’ sense of meaningful work.
Individuals and meaning
Meaningfulness is closely linked to other positive attitudes such as feeling satisfied or engaged, but it’s distinctive in several ways:
- People matter: meaning is almost invariably associated with positive impact on other people, whether we have direct contact with them or not.
- Meaningfulness might not always be a positive experience: this is particularly true if the people your work brings you in contact with are facing a difficult emotional challenge.
- Meaningfulness is not a continuous state: we aren’t generally conscious of the meaning of our work, and no one finds their work meaningful all the time. We need to pause and think in order to become aware of it.
- Meaningfulness is not the same as job satisfaction: work can be made meaningful because of what it brings to our personal lives, whether that’s time, money or family pride in what we do.
Making and losing meaning
People are adept at finding meaningfulness in what they do, but unfortunately managers can be equally skilled in destroying this meaning through their actions.
When our interviewees discussed times they felt their work lacked meaning, they often talked about poor treatment by their managers. Some of the ‘meaningfulness destroyers’ they mentioned were:
- Failing to involve employees in important decisions
- Lack of acknowledgment
- Isolating or bullying tactics
- Not protecting employees from physical or mental harm
- Focussing only on cost not quality
While they should avoid trying to dictate what employees should find meaningful, organisations and managers can nurture an environment that helps people to find meaning in their work by:
- Adopting values that are authentic, and not at odds with an organisation’s reality
- Ensuring workers are in jobs that suit their skills and personalities
- Fostering a positive and respectful working climate
- Helping workers see how their work has a positive effect on others.
If you would like to delve deeper, have confidential discussions with like-minded peers, and get involved in developing research that will answer questions important to your organisation, you may wish to join King’s Business School’s new Research Consortium on Meaning and Purpose at Work. Email me at Catherine.firstname.lastname@example.org to find out more.
A longer version of this article originally appeared in the Conversation.