meaningful work wordle

Meaningful work. What makes it happen? What happens when people experience it? Here’s what the research says…

Updated 10/16/2017

Work is meaningful when it connects to our deepest values, needs, and goals.

Meaningful work is subjective. Two people can be experiencing highly meaningful work in completely different jobs. Two people in the same job can find the work meaningful for completely different reasons.

We each have unique values, needs, and goals. And these change and evolve over our lives. Although doing work that helps others is a common path to meaningfulness, it’s not the only one. People can find meaning in many aspects of work (like learning, or solving problems).

Listen to an interview with Swarthmore College’s Dr. Barry Schwartz — How Can a Monotonous Job Be Meaningful?

When we find meaningful work, we do our best work.

When work is meaningful, we are inspired to:

    • show up for work more
    • perform better
    • persist longer
    • be more engaged in our work
    • be more committed to the organization we’re working within

Work meaningfulness is not the same as engagement or motivation.

Work meaningfulness is a distinct construct. It behaves differently from intrinsic motivation, work engagement, and job satisfaction.

For example, it’s possible to be satisfied with a job you don’t find especially meaningful (e.g., because the pay and benefits are favorable). It’s also possible to be unhappy in job you find meaningful (e.g., because of long working hours or limited resources, such as with a zookeeper who endures difficult working circumstances for the sake of caring for the animals).

It’s possible to design a job to be more meaningful, but meaningful work is still personal.

Some job characteristics have a high potential to elicit a sense of meaning at work…

  1. A compelling mission that’s clearly stated and woven into the daily activities and policies of the organization (i.e., helps people frame work toward a purpose)
  2. Opportunities and encouragement for each person to employ many unique skills and talents (i.e., maximize self-expression)
  3. Responsibility ‘ownership’ by individual employees, so that each person contributes an important and complete piece (i.e., worthwhile tasks)
  4. A vivid, felt connection between the work itself and the difference it makes in the lives or work of others, potentially including frequent contact with the beneficiaries of the work (i.e., clear impact).
  5. A transformational leader (or leadership team) who inspires people toward a grand vision (i.e., a new reality the work is shaping).

However, it’s also possible for somebody to work in a job that has many of these characteristics and not find it meaningful. Remember point #1 — ultimately what a person finds meaningful is highly personal. That’s why person-organization and person-job fit are important.

For some people science brought to life, listen to stories about the meaningful work people are doing on Slack’s podcast Work In Progress.

People think of work as either a job, a career, or a calling.

When we think about work, we can place its meaning in different ways…

  • When thinking of work as a “job”, we work mainly for the paycheck. Our interests, passions, and ambitions lie elsewhere.
  • When thinking of work as a “career”, we are often deeply invested, but mark our achievements through advancement in the organization/field (i.e., “waiting on the next promotion”).
  • When thinking of work as a “calling”, we love the work for itself, and find it deeply meaningful.

In any of these orientations, it is possible to experience high job satisfaction and engagement. But a calling orientation especially links to higher meaningfulness, self-efficacy, and work engagement.

Hear Yale University researcher Dr. Amy Wrzesniewski talk about her work on callings and job crafting on Hidden Brain’s You 2.0: Dream Jobs episode.

Unanswered callings can drive work behavior.

A calling is a type of work that you feel strongly drawn to. The word “calling” is often associated with the religious notion of being “called by God to do this work,” but also describes work that feels like a profoundly perfect personal fit.

A missed or unanswered calling is a sense that current work is not fulfilling, or only partially fulfilling, an important connection between work and identity.

We often attempt to steer our work and/or leisure time to fill unanswered callings. This can mean crafting a job to match what is uniquely meaningful to us, making commitments to contribute beyond work responsibilities inside or outside the organization, or searching for a new job.

The desire for work meaningfulness is not exclusive to the millennial generation.

There’s a popular myth that the millennial generation seeks meaningful work above money.

Research does not support this. According to research, young people of every generation have wanted meaningfulness in work. And in general, people of all ages and generations would like work to be meaningful.

While it’s tempting to stereotype generations, the stereotypes rarely outweigh individual variability.

People can create meaning in any job.

If given sufficient autonomy, a person will often re-shape a job in the direction of personal interests and passions. This is called job crafting.

Specifically, task crafting is when a person modifies and tailors job tasks (e.g., by volunteering for personally interesting projects, or specializing in job content that matches a personal passion).

Cognitive crafting (also called “meaning-making”) is when a person reframes thoughts about the work (i.e., by reframing the job as more related to a personal calling than it might seem at first).

Organizational leaders and managers can play an important role in shaping meaningful jobs (as described above), and also in provoking people to explore job crafting, task crafting, and cognitive crafting to find more personal meaning in work.

Hear Dr. Robert Quinn’s stories of what happens when we become purpose-seeking in our lives and work, and how resourceful we become when embracing a meaningful purpose:

More Coetic resources on Purpose & Meaning…