Meaningful versus Meaningless

People make their own meaning, but organizations and leaders can make our work meaningless

Stowe Boyd
Nov 18, 2019 · 4 min read
Photo by manu schwendener on Unsplash

In What Makes Work Meaningful — Or Meaningless, Catherine Bailey and Adrian Madden researched the factors that make or break meaning at work. Most of their preconceptions were overturned:

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; 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. 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.

We also expected to find a clear link between the factors that drove up levels of meaningfulness and those that eroded them. Instead, we found that meaningfulness appeared to be driven up and decreased by different factors. Whereas our interviewees tended to find meaningfulness for themselves rather than it being mandated by their managers, we discovered that if employers want to destroy that sense of meaningfulness, that was far more easily achieved. The feeling of “Why am I bothering to do this?” strikes people the instant 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. Avoiding the destruction of meaning while nurturing an ecosystem generative of feelings of meaningfulness emerged as the key leadership challenge.

Reading this I was reminded of Herzberg’s Two-Factor Theory, which I wrote about in What Drives Us?:

I found myself impressed by immensely practical insight of Frederick Herzberg’s Two-Factor Theory, which is based on the notion that job satisfaction and dissatisfaction are not two ends of one dimension, but actually two independent factors. Job satisfaction is a function of the work that someone does, and that has the capacity to fulfill needs, like achievement, competency, status, personal worth, and self-realization. Job dissatisfaction is linked to unfavorable perceptions of working conditions, relationships with others (especially supervisors), company policies, and salary. Herzberg’s breakthrough is that these two factors must be measured and managed independently, and in parallel.

Here the link between Herzberg’s job satisfaction and people’s perception of the meaningfulness of their work seems fairly direct: in both cases, it is a deeply personal feeling. However, job dissatisfaction is a shared condition caused by bad management, as is the sense of work being meaningless.

No surprise that later in their analysis, Bailey and Madden make the same connection with Herzberg’s Two Factor Theory:

In the 1960s, Frederick Herzberg showed that the factors that give rise to a sense of job satisfaction are not the same as those that lead to feelings of dissatisfaction. It seems that something similar is true for meaningfulness. Our research shows that meaningfulness is largely something that individuals find for themselves in their work, but meaninglessness is something that organizations and leaders can actively cause. Clearly, the first challenge to building a satisfied workforce is to avoid the seven deadly sins that drive up levels of meaninglessness.

The seven deadly sins:

  1. Disconnect people from their values.
  2. Take your employees for granted.
  3. Give people pointless work to do.
  4. Treat people unfairly.
  5. Override people’s better judgment.
  6. Disconnect people from supportive relationships.
  7. Put people at risk of physical or emotional harm.

The researchers provide a model for a ‘meaningfulness ecosystem’, which I don’t think is really an ecosystem but more like a model for thinking about avoiding meaninglessness work.

Stowe Boyd

Written by

Founder, Work Futures. Editor, GigaOm. My obsession is the ecology of work, and the anthropology of the future.

Work Futures

Exploring critical themes of the ecology of work, and the anthropology of the future

More From Medium

More from Work Futures

More from Work Futures

More from Work Futures

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade