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How organisations can help work feel meaningful

How we find our work meaningful is a very personal matter and one that has a direct impact on our life and well-being. So, is there a role for the organisation to play in helping to create meaningfulness?

We all have good days and bad days at work. The good days can become golden memories with the potential to give us a warm glow for years after. The worst ones can become pivotal moments when we begin to disengage from our job or even decide to leave the organisation.

How we cope with a good or bad experience at work depends on whether, overall, we feel that our work is meaningful: does our work give us purpose, is it personally enriching and do we make a positive contribution to the world?

Neurologist and psychiatrist Victor Frankl, who was imprisoned in a concentration camp during the Second World War, wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning (1946) that even in the worst circumstances, people will continue to seek out their purpose in life.

Organisational behaviourists have been developing frameworks for meaningful work for more than 30 years and some items crop up regularly as ingredients in meaningfulness:

  • Developing a sense of purpose (identifying and pursuing your valued goals)
  • Making sense of your experience (who you are and your place in the world)
  • Serving others (either directly or indirectly)
  • Unity with others
  • Developing and becoming more oneself.

Put like this, finding our work meaningful is a personal matter that has a direct impact on our life and well-being. So, is there a role for the organisation to play in helping to create meaningfulness?

When Prof. Catherine Bailey and Dr Adrian Madden interviewed 135 people in 10 professions ranging across retail, nurses, musicians, actors, scientists, lawyers and more in 2016, they found participants reported that meaningfulness was made by the individuals themselves rather than being engendered by their managers or the organisation. In fact, organisations were often more adept at creating meaninglessness at work.

Meaningfulness was also distinct from other work-related attitudes such as engagement or commitment. Bailey and Madden say: “We found that, unlike these other attitudes, meaningfulness tended to be something intensely personal and individual, it was often revealed to employees as they reflected on their work and its wider contribution to society in ways that mattered to them as individuals.”

The study also discovered that meaningfulness wasn’t only found in positive contexts – it can be found in discomfort too. For example, “nurses described moments of profound meaningfulness when they were able to use their professional skills and knowledge to ease the passing of patients at the end of their lives,” noted the researchers.

We found that, unlike these other attitudes, meaningfulness tended to be something intensely personal and individual, it was often revealed to employees as they reflected on their work and its wider contribution to society in ways that mattered to them as individuals.

The “management of meaning”

In recent years, as the ineffectiveness of broadcast internal communications has become more apparent, organisations have, in some cases, turned to meaning-making instead. While creating and nurturing a working environment where meaningfulness can thrive is a noble aim, many organisations have become slightly confused about where to focus their efforts.

In fact, much leadership and organisational posturing spends precious little time on the things at work that renders work meaningless in the first place. Bailey and Madden say: “The feeling of ‘why am I bothering to do this?’ strikes people instantly a meaningless moment arises, and it strikes people hard…If meaningfulness is a delicate flower that requires careful nurturing, think of someone trampling over that flower in a pair of steel-toed boots.”

Business ethics researchers Marjolein Lips-Wiersma and Lani Morris make the point that meaningful work is based on authentic engagement with the often less-than-perfect reality: just like in the example of the nurses above, it’s not necessary for everything to be positive or perfect for people to find meaningfulness.

One unfortunate consequence of the interest in meaningfulness at work is that some organisations busy themselves with “the management of meaning” that “treats the employee as an empty vessel that somehow needs to be provided with meaning through a series of techniques in exchange for which the employee is to give more discretionary effort to the organisation.”

This “dark side” of managing meaningfulness is often carried out via requiring buy-in to values and ideals through both discourse and emotion. But what this type of approach won’t do is create meaningfulness because, as Lips-Wiersma and Morris have shown, meaningfulness is created in the authentic response to often less-than-perfect reality. And people are usually OK with the idea that reality is often less than perfect.

So, corporate wiles – such as enhancing the meaningfulness of work for sales staff by incorporating goals that feature their family members, such as being able to send their children to good schools, or using a sense of community at work as a cost-effective way to motivate employees to undertake trivial or routine tasks – are often contributing factors to employees experiencing alienation and dissonance between the reality they observe in their daily working lives and the rhetoric of the corporation.

Employees are not passive recipients of employer strategies to manage meaningfulness, but actively scan their environment for clues as to the authenticity of organisational efforts. As Lips-Wiersma and Morris say: “They look for discrepancies, mismatches and inauthentic expressions.” And of course, the upshot when inauthenticity is detected is a breach of trust, performance and commitment.

So, at our very core we all crave meaningfulness and, in keeping with its importance, we humans are very good at sniffing out attempts to subvert our need for it and manipulate us.

Organisations can, however, help to create a context in which meaningfulness can be achieved. One of the latest pieces of meaningfulness research suggests that organisations should build and maintain work environments with the following qualities:

  • Well-designed and high-quality jobs that provide opportunities for “job crafting
  • Facilitative leaders, cultures, policies and practices
  • High-quality relationships in the workplace
  • Access to decent work/fair employment.

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