Keys to Meaningful Work

The 21st century list of essentials might be due for an update: “food, clothing, shelter — and meaningful work.” When I first read this statement, I was surprised, truly surprised. Then I read, “9 out of 10 employees are willing to trade a percentage of their lifetime earnings for greater meaning at work,” and here is when it became shocking. These statements were made in a study conducted by Shawn Achor, Andrew Reece, Gabriella Rosen Kellerman & Alexi Robichaux for the Harvard Business Review. After reading and analyzing this, I wondered: could this be really true in today’s society?

When I graduated from college, I used to believe it wouldn’t matter the job I got as long as my salary was good. Some years down the road, I have to admit that even when a paycheck can really lean the scale, that sole belief was not really sustainable overtime. When you think that we spend at least 8 hours of our day at work, you can all agree that feeling useful and valuable becomes a great focal point. If you feel miserable or underestimated at work, chances are that feeling will infect the other aspects of your life, as well.

Across age and salary groups, workers want meaningful work so badly that they’re willing to pay for it.

Story time! Three men are found smashing rocks with iron hammers. When asked what they were doing, the first man said, “Breaking big rocks into little rocks.” The second man said, “Feeding my family.” And the third man said, “Building a cathedral.” For today’s purpose, we will be focusing on the third man, the one who saw he was contributing to something bigger than himself.

Michael F. Steger, an Associate Professor in the Counseling Psychology and Applied Social Psychology programs at Colorado State University, addresses that meaningful work consists on three central components:

1. The work we do must make sense: we must know what’s being asked of us and be able to identify the resources we need to do our job- This is the degree to which we find our work to have significance and purpose.

2. The work we do must have a point: we must be able to see how the little tasks we are engage in are an important part of the purpose of the company- Meaning that our work contribution will help find a broader meaning.

3. The work that we do must benefit some greater good: we must be able to see how our efforts and work help others- This is the desire that one’s work have to make a positive contribution to a greater good.

Coming back to our story, The Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris took more than 170 years to be completed (1163–1345). When you consider that people at the time used to live between 30–50 years tops, that would mean it took four-six generation of workers to build this splendorous piece of architecture. If the worker of our story was from generation one, his job would probably has been to break big rocks into smaller ones, BUT he would just as well, have contributed to build a great cathedral. A cathedral that future generations of his kin would enjoy and see for the first time remembering that his great-great-grandfather helped to build this place with his bare hands. If this was our builder’s point of view, then the work and effort he was investing everyday, would have held the hope of transforming his every working day into an important task to live a better and more meaningful life.

Michael F. Steger indicates that “we crave work that can be more than the sum of the tasks we perform. We want our work to express ourselves, and we want it to matter to the world beyond our skin.” Finding a way to make the work we do to have more meaning is a way to make it a better job instantly- making work more meaningful is a way to keep and inspire the best employees. Studies constantly show that meaningful workers are happy workers, more committed workers, and better workers. In tough times, meaningful work draws the attention more than ever.

Top talent can demand what they want, including meaning, and will jump ship if they don’t get it. Employers must respond or lose talent and productivity. Building greater meaning in the workplace is no longer a nice-to-have, it’s an imperative.

Professor Katie Bailey, an employee engagement expert at Sussex’s School of Business, Management and Economics, and Dr. Adrian Madden of Greenwich’s business school conducted a study in which they interviewed people working in very different occupations to ask about the times when they found their work to be meaningful or not. The authors identified five qualities of meaningful work:

  • Self-Transcendent: Individuals experience their work as meaningful when it matters to others more than just to themselves.

People did not just talk about themselves when they talked about meaningful work; they talked about the impact or relevance their work had for other individuals, groups, or the wider environment.

  • Poignant: People find their work to be full of meaning at moments associated with mixed or uncomfortable thoughts and feelings, not just around joy and happiness.

People find moments of meaningfulness when they had triumphed in difficult circumstances or had solved a complex, intractable problem.

  • Episodic: It seems that no one can find their work consistently meaningful, but rather that an awareness that work is meaningful arises at peak times that are generative of strong experiences.

Peak experiences have a profound effect on individuals, are highly memorable, and become part of their life narratives.

  • Reflective: Meaningfulness is rarely experienced in the moment, but rather in retrospective when people are able to see their work completed and make connections between their achievements and a wider sense of life meaning.

Your work might seemed fairly meaningless at the time, until you stop and look back at the work you have done- look how you have changed over the time.

  • Personal: Work that is meaningful is often understood by people not just in the context of their work, but also in the wider context of their personal life experiences.

Meaningfulness arise when personal experiences coalesced with the sense of a job well done, recognized, and appreciated by others.

This being said, what factors serve to destroy the fragile sense of meaningfulness that individuals find in their work? This time, instead of saying what to do, we will focus on what NOT to do in our organizations.

In the same study, Professor Bailey and Dr. Madden also address “Seven Deadly Sins”:

  1. Disconnect people from their values: The tension between an organizational focus on the bottom line and the individual’s focus on the quality or professionalism of work (e.g. management being more interested in profits and reduction of costs, instead of focusing on conducting the best possible practices and increasing the intellectual integrity of the employees).
  2. Take your employees for granted: Lack of recognition for hard work by organizational leaders usually creates a feeling of pointlessness in the employee (e.g. despite putting in long hours, the employee is criticized for not moving through the work quickly enough).
  3. Give people pointless work to do: The study showed that individuals have a strong sense of what their job should involve and how they should be spending their time. When employees are required to perform tasks that do not fit that idea, the feeling of meaninglessness arises (e.g. bureaucratic tasks and form filling that are not directly related to their core purpose).
  4. Treat people unfairly: This could mean not giving equal opportunities for raises, promotions, rewards, vacation time… (e.g. procedural injustices such as lack of opportunities for career progression).
  5. Override people’s better judgment: When people feel they are not listened, that their opinions and experience do not count, or that they don’t have a voice, they are more likely to find their work meaningless (e.g. invalidation over how the work was done).
  6. Disconnect people from supportive relationships: Camaraderie and relations with coworkers play an important role to provide meaning in the workplace. Entrepreneurs interviewed in the study talked about their sense of loneliness during the startup phase of the business and how the sense of belonging and meaningfulness growth once the business developed and involved more people with whom they were able to share the successes (e.g. having one-man army “teams” in your organization).
  7. Put people at risk of physical or emotional harm: This will probably not be as common as the others, but still important to point out. Unnecessary exposure to risks was associated with lost meaningfulness (e.g. alone confrontations, public vulnerability exposure, words of degradation, job humiliation…).

Finally, make every worker a knowledge worker. This term was first coined by Peter Drucker in his book The Landmarks of Tomorrow (1959). Drucker defined knowledge workers as high-level workers who apply theoretical and analytical knowledge, acquired through formal training, to develop products and services. He noted that knowledge workers would be the most valuable assets of a 21st century organization because of their high level of productivity and creativity and well, he was right!

Knowledge workers are said to “ think for a living,” unlike manual laborers who are paid for performing physical tasks. Knowledge workers are differentiated from other workers by their ability to solve complex problems or to develop new products or services in their fields of expertise.

Research shows that all work becomes knowledge work when workers are given the chance to make it so, which is GREAT NEWS FOR BOTH COMPANIES AND EMPLOYEES!

According to the HBR study mentioned at the beginning of this article, “managers and organizations seeking to bolster meaning will need to proactively support their employees’ pursuit of personal growth and development alongside the more traditional professional development opportunities.”

Why do we need to create more knowledge workers?

  • They are motivated by achievement, not by fear- they want to see the results of their work.
  • They consider the productivity of their work to be the quality, not quantity, of their output.
  • They are self-motivated. They like to work on problems and find solutions.
  • They are self-directed. Knowledge workers have to manage themselves, but they have to have autonomy.

Offer your employees opportunities to creatively engage in their work, share knowledge, and feel like they’re co-creating the process of how the work gets done. Coaching and mentoring are valuable tools to help workers across all roles and levels find deeper inspiration in their work- continuous learning in the field is extremely important. Also, authorities and responsibilities need to be clear, it is important that employees know what decisions they can make, so they can take ownership of their work and innovate.

Another key to succeed on knowledge management, according to Drucker, is information: “it’s what enables knowledge workers to do their job- every organization will have to learn to innovate” on a constant basis, “unless this is done, the knowledge-based organization will very soon find itself obsolescent, losing performance capacity and with it the ability to attract and hold the skilled and knowledgeable people on whom its performance depends.”

“If knowledge isn’t challenged to grow, it disappears fast- It’s infinitely more perishable than any other resource we have ever had.”
-Peter Drucker on Knowledge Management