meaningful work 4 paths

Some people are only in it for the money. Work is a means to fulfillment after 5pm, and jobs are basically interchangeable – with greater pay for less effort as a goal. If you’re a boss at any level, this is not the way you’re hoping people approach and value their work. Fortunately, most people value psychological payoffs from work too. Although people vary, we are built to want meaningful work.

At any leadership level — from supervisor of one, to manager of several, to director of many, to HR professional, to executive or owner — you have a tremendous opportunity to support access to meaningful work. Great byproduct: your work as a leader becomes more fulfilling and less burdened by team member disengagement! More meaningful work for your team equals more meaningful work for you.

Meaningful Work — Tricky, But Worth It

Let’s put the tough reality out there right away. It’s true — the same job can be meaningful or meaningless depending on the person doing it.

Sometimes this reality gets a flawed interpretation — “if someone else would see this job as meaningful, and you don’t, you must be a bad apple.” Don’t fall into flawed thinking that there’s nothing you can do to make work meaningful for your team members, just because meaningful work is subjective.

Meaningfulness comes from FIT between a job and a person. It doesn’t come from just the job or just the person. One person will not find every job equally meaningful. Every person will not find one job equally meaningful. Meaningful work is all about fit and resonance with personal values.

Work becomes meaningful when it connects to personal values — the things we believe are undeniably good in life. For a person who values social harmony, work that involves resolving conflict can hold tremendous meaning. For a person who values creativity, work that involves bringing something from imagination to reality can be meaningful.

Your job as a leader — help each person on your team find meaning within work requirements and experiences. And at the very least, avoid getting in the way of meaningful work experiences.

Your job as a leader – help each person on your team find meaning within work requirements and experiences.

Why Care about Meaningful Work? Two Reasons.

  1. Meaningful work is great for people and for organizations…

    People who experience meaning in their work tend to be better for the organization. Meaningful work connects positively with motivation, performance, engagement, job satisfaction. When work is meaningful, there’s also less absenteeism and lower intention to quit. Feeling that work is meaningful actually predicts (lower) turnover intentions better than job satisfaction.[1] And, not surprisingly, people who are more engaged in work tend to produce a higher quantity and better quality of work.

    …as long as you don’t take it too far.

    Warning! Shakespeare pondered, “Can one desire too much of a good thing?” Research on meaningful work cautions “yes” — people who derive deep meaning from work can experience negative consequences as they sacrifice pay, personal time, and comfort.[2] To keep meaningful work a win-win for people and organizations, handle with care.

  2. Meaningful Work Is Trending — People want it now more than ever.

    Work has come a long way. Taking a brief look at history…

    The industrial revolution changed work significantly. Artisans, farmers, and rural entrepreneurs traded autonomy for factory jobs in large cities. Management philosophy at the time saw employees as machines motivated only by money.[3] The industrial era’s emphasis on efficiency fueled economic explosion. However, conditions were poor and workers derived little pride in their work due to repetition and low autonomy. While strict efficiency might work for robots, human factory workers and cubicle dwellers often felt like something was missing.

    Since the Industrial Revolution, management and job design have become far more ‘human-friendly’ but many people still feel disengaged and purposeless at work. As more people enjoyed the higher and more stable standard of living that industrialization brought, we also collectively developed higher standards for what life should bring. Abraham Maslow organized human needs in a hierarchy.[4] When we can reliably satisfy lower level needs like food and security, we naturally turn attention to more abstract needs. At the top of the hierarchy, we become concerned with self-actualization and self-transcendence. These needs are about realizing and leveraging personal strengths and having a positive impact on the world.

    Modern organizations are seeing shifts in applicants’ goals. More than ever, people want jobs that resonate with personal values and provide a sense of purpose. Given adequate pay, a big(ger) paycheck and dreams of climbing the corporate hierarchy aren’t as motivating as they once were. This isn’t to say that pay and benefits don’t matter. They do, and an organization will have difficulty attracting and retaining talented people if its offerings are subpar. But the intangibles are now important considerations too.

How to Support Meaningful Work

So people want meaningful work, and organizations benefit when people find it. What can leaders, managers, and HR professionals do?

Marjolein Lips-Wiersma noticed common themes in the ways people find meaning in work: expressing full potential, developing and becoming self, uniting with others, and serving others.[5],[6] This framework to encourage people to discover meaning in their work requirements and experiences. Let’s explore…

Path 1: Expressing Full Potential

Creating. Making something that did not exist before can be very meaningful. It makes us feel like we’re using our unique skills and abilities in a productive way. It expresses individuality.

Achieving. People have a fundamental urge to develop competence. We want to master new skills and use them to reach important benchmarks of success.

Influencing. Feeling like we can change the environment or influence other people’s opinions can be meaningful. Like creating, Influencing is another form of uniquely making an impact in the world.

How to help people express their full potential:

  • Offer learning opportunities and encourage people to expand skill sets. Valuing mastery and expertise helps the organization grow human capital, and people enjoy the sense of continual progress.
  • Recognize good work and highlight achievements. Lack of appreciation is one of the most common reasons people have for leaving jobs.[7] Give genuine positive feedback that is immediate, task-relevant, and personal to bolster a person’s sense of accomplishment.
  • Listen to suggestions. Encourage a culture of “psychological safety” in which people feel free to share viewpoints and offer ideas for improvement. Recognize that people enjoy being able to share personal views on the work they are producing.

Path 2: Developing and Becoming Self

Self-Knowledge. Self-knowledge is the ongoing discovery of what really matters to you (e.g., core values, beliefs, principles). Work experiences can help people gain clarity on personal values, and deepen a sense of meaningfulness.

Personal Growth. People thrive on a sense of learning and growth. This is about more than just gaining new skills. Personal growth is the sense that you are blossoming as a human being. It’s the process of becoming a different and better version of yourself at a deeper level. When work helps us become better people, it is incredibly meaningful.

Being True to One’s Self. People need and appreciate work that allows personal integrity as a unique individual rather than demanding pretense. When work is a place where we can act in accordance with personal values and beliefs, we find greater meaning and purpose. Work environments that devalue authenticity in the name of conformity can hinder the experience of meaningful work.

How to create work where people develop and become their best selves:

  • Reinforce autonomy as much as possible. Some tasks need to be standardized in the name of quality or efficiency, but people will find greater meaning where there is as much freedom within the constraints as possible. Lean toward defining outcome standards and relationship principles more than dictating process and procedure rules wherever possible. Engage people in forming a shared understanding (e.g., how do we know a customer interaction that meets our standards and values when we see it?). When people have autonomy to choose how to do the work, and can apply a reasonable sense of creativity, even more common or boring tasks can become purposeful.
  • Have conversations about personal growth. Learn what’s really important to people. Help people discover how being a part of the organization can contribute to being who they want to be.
  • Be a model of being true to yourself while also acting in accordance with the organization’s principles and values. Conducting business with integrity, honesty, and authenticity can inspire people to find their own path to being true to self within the organization.

Path 3: Uniting with Others

Sharing Values. Many work conversations necessarily center on concrete objectives and actions. However, discussing how deeply held beliefs and values shape the team’s work adds depth in relationships among team members.

Belonging. Forming and maintaining social bonds is a fundamental human urge and a significant source of meaning in work for many people. A work community built on mutual respect, trust, and compassion provides a solid base for people to relate to one another in a meaningful way.

Working Together. Collaborating with colleagues to accomplish something greater than any individual could do alone is meaningful. Working with others toward a shared purpose provides a social element within work demands.

How to help people contribute to unity on the team:

  • Define your organization’s core values. Publishing values clarifies identity and makes it easier for people to connect in a way that feels personally meaningful and important. Values give people a common frame-of-reference from which to make decisions and develop ideas.
  • Encourage people to develop a rich network across the organization. Many jobs demand significant periods of individual focused production, and when overdone, people doing these jobs can become isolated and detached. Recognize when people or projects could benefit from collaboration and interaction to see how their work fits into the bigger picture and to feel like an important part of the team.
  • Host opportunities for people to relate without any concern for productivity. People whose work styles clash might get along famously in more informal situations.

Path 4: Serving Others

Making a Difference Internally. Having the sense that your work contributes to the organization’s success and the success of your colleagues can be very meaningful. Meaning can come from being able to enact positive changes or contribute beyond a job description tomake the organization better.

Meeting the Needs of Humanity. Meaning can also come from doing work that benefits people outside of the organization. When work connects to some greater good, people find purpose in work that is significant and worthwhile.

How to foster work experiences that highlight a sense of service or purpose:

  • State a compelling purpose or mission for your organization. This is the overarching why behind your company’s work. Knowing that other people benefit from one’s effort can bolster perseverance on tasks that are not intrinsically rewarding.
  • Show how work affects coworkers. When people feel like they’re compensating for others’ poor work or inefficiencies in others parts of the organization, it’s hard to focus on making a real contribution. Encourage accountability horizontally, not just vertically.
  • Connect people to the outcomes of their work. Clarify how each job contributes to the organization’s purpose and overall success. Adam Grant found that fundraisers who read stories from people that benefited from their efforts were significantly more effective.[8] Even when people believe that their work helps people, vividly experiencing that impact can be a powerful confirmation. Patrick Lencioni recommends helping employees answer two key questions: Who am I helping? How am I helping?[9]

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