Selling Dress Chaps Selling Casual Chaps New research offers insights into what gives work meaning — as well as into common management mistakes that can leave employees feeling that their work is meaningless.

Meaningful work is something we all want. The psychiatrist Viktor Frankl famously described how the innate human quest for meaning is so strong that, even in the direst circumstances, people seek out their purpose in life.1 More recently, researchers have shown meaningfulness to be more important to employees than any other aspect of work, including pay and rewards, opportunities for promotion, or working conditions.2 Meaningful work can be highly motivational, leading to improved performance, commitment, and satisfaction.3 But, so far, surprisingly little research has explored where and how people find their work meaningful and the role that leaders can play in this process.4

We interviewed 135 people working in 10 very different occupations and asked them to tell us stories about incidents or times when they found their work to be meaningful and, conversely, times when they asked themselves, “What’s the point of doing this job?” We expected to find that meaningfulness would be similar to other work-related attitudes, such as engagement or commitment, in that it would arise purely in response to situations within the work environment. However, we found that, unlike these other attitudes, meaningfulness tended to be intensely personal and individual;5 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. People tended to speak of their work as meaningful in relation to thoughts or memories of significant family members such as parents or children, bridging the gap between work and the personal realm. We also expected meaningfulness to be a relatively enduring state of mind experienced by individuals toward their work; instead, our interviewees talked of unplanned or unexpected moments during which they found their work deeply meaningful.

We were anticipating that our data would show that the meaningfulness experienced by employees in relation to their work was clearly associated with actions taken by managers, such that, for example, transformational leaders would have followers who found their work meaningful, whereas transactional leaders would not.6 Instead, our research showed that quality of leadership received virtually no mention when people described meaningful moments at work, but poor management was the top destroyer of meaningfulness.

References (32)

1. V.E. Frankl, “Man’s Search For Meaning” (Boston: Beacon Press, 1959).

2. W.F. Cascio, “Changes in Workers, Work, and Organizations,” vol. 12, chap. 16 in “Handbook of Psychology,” ed. W. Borman, R. Klimoski, and D. Ilgen (New York: Wiley, 2003).

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8 Comments On: What Makes Work Meaningful — Or Meaningless

  • Speck Kevin Pratt | June 4, 2016

    Dress Chaps Casual Selling Selling Chaps Just wanted to say thanks for writing this. I’m currently trying to right the ship of an international nonprofit organization that’s largely volunteer run. Being able to point to these Seven Deadly Sins and cite this article should make a huge difference. I’ve seen 6 of the 7 committed over the last year multiple times.

  • Jaba Gupta | June 10, 2016

    Excellent article!
    It is perhaps the most engrossing one on the topic that I have read after Viktor E. Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning.

  • P Kumar | June 11, 2016
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    A very good opportunity to understand the real meaning of ‘a meaningful work’. As an academician into corporate training, I get lot of satisfaction seeing positive change in the mindset and methods of managers. I really am able to feel that I’m actually doing a meaningful work. This article validates it further. I’ve even instances of ‘flow’ as explained by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and deep involvement and liking for the job. Even if I find my job meaningful; looking from a broader and practical perspective, two important aspects of the ‘seven deadly sins’ very correctly mentioned which dilute the meaningfulness are – treating people unfairly and, taking your employees for granted (lack of recognition and appreciation). Hope the essence of this article gets imbibed by relevant people mostly from the top management who can create tremendous change towards a conducive organizational climate leading to unprecedented engagement levels of people.

  • Katie Bailey | June 19, 2016

    Thank you for your positive comments on our article. I do agree that there is much more that managers and leaders can do to help individuals find their work meaningful. In our study, we found it really matters to people to know that their work makes a positive difference to others, whether that be people they know, clients or customers, colleagues, or even future generations. Leaders who create opportunities for people to meet with the beneficiaries of their work, and who seek out ways to show employees how important their work is to the wider world, will certainly help in this process. Unfortunately, it is all too easy to get bogged down in the day-to-day routines of the working day and to forget the significance of these wider issues for human well-being.

  • itha | June 30, 2016

    This work and research have similar findings to the work done by Prof T Amabile and S Kramer, The Progress Principle.

    They found that it is the small wins every day which create the biggest intrinsic motivation. “Creating forward movement in meaningful work” people need to have satisfying inner work live.
    I highly recommend reading this book in conjunction with the research above

  • vinodgupta | August 8, 2016

    Very insightful research validating my own intuitive thinking. Very timely too for me personally as I currently engaged in a project aiming to enhance employee engagement.

  • Andrewdonovan | November 28, 2016

    Some commentators have argued that it is not the role of the corporation to provide meaningfulness in people’s lives. This article provides a powerful argument that if we do not invest in avoiding the 7 deadly sins of meaninglessness we are working against a very powerful aspect of our humanity that will inevtiablly weaken our corporations. Indeed creating an environment in which people can find meaningfulness is both
    strategic and efficient, while also plays to who we are.

  • Chandra Pandey | November 4, 2017

    A very thoughtful subject & reading offering on evergreen subject.

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