Meaningful work. What makes it happen? What happens when people experience it? Here’s what the research says…
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?
- Lips-Wiersma, M., & Wright, S. (2012). Measuring the meaning of meaningful work: Development and validation of the Comprehensive Meaningful Work Scale (CMWS). Group & Organization Management, 37(5), 655-685.
- Morrison, M.A., Walker, R., & DeShon, R.P. (2016). Toward a comprehensive definition of work meaningfulness. Society for Industrial-Organizational Psychology: Orlando, Florida, April 27th, 2017.
- Rosso, B.D., Dekas, K.H., & Wrzesniewski, A. (2010). On the meaning of work: A theoretical integration and review. Research in Organizational Behavior, 30, 91-127.
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
- Chalofsky, N., & Krishna, V. (2009). Meaningfulness, commitment, and engagement: The intersection of a deeper level of intrinsic motivation. Advances in Developing Human Resources, 11(2), 189-203.
- Morgeson, F.P., & Humphrey, S.E. (2006). The Work Design Questionnaire (WDQ): Developing and validating a comprehensive measure for assessing job design and the nature of work. Journal of Applied Psychology, 91(6), 1321.
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).
- Bunderson, J.S., & Thompson, J.A. (2009). The call of the wild: Zookeepers, callings, and the double-edged sword of deeply meaningful work. Administrative Science Quarterly, 54(1), 32-57.
- Chalofsky, N., & Krishna, V. (2009). Meaningfulness, commitment, and engagement:The intersection of a deeper level of intrinsic motivation. Advances in Developing Human Resources, 11(2), 189–203. https://doi.org/10.1177/1523422309333147
- Wrzesniewski, A., McCauley, C., Rozin, P., & Schwartz, B. (1997). Jobs, careers, and callings: People’s relations to their work. Journal of Research in Personality, 31(1), 21-33.
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…
- 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)
- Opportunities and encouragement for each person to employ many unique skills and talents (i.e., maximize self-expression)
- Responsibility ‘ownership’ by individual employees, so that each person contributes an important and complete piece (i.e., worthwhile tasks)
- 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).
- 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.
- Grant, A.M. (2007). Relational job design and the motivation to make a prosocial difference. Academy of Management Review, 32(2), 393-417.
- Hackman, J.R., & Oldham, G.R. (1976). Motivation through the design of work: Test of a theory. Organizational Behavior and Human Performance, 16(2), 250-279.
- Lepisto, D.A., & Pratt, M.G. (2017). Meaningful work as realization and justification: Toward a dual conceptualization. Organizational Psychology Review, 7(2), 99-121.
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.
- Hirschi, A. (2012). Callings and work engagement: Moderated mediation model of work meaningfulness, occupational identity, and occupational self-efficacy. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 59(3), 479–485.
- Wrzesniewski, A., McCauley, C., Rozin, P., & Schwartz, B. (1997). Jobs, careers, and callings: People’s relations to their work. Journal of Research in Personality, 31(1), 21–33.
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.
- Berg, J.M., Grant, A.M., & Johnson, V. (2010). When callings are calling: Crafting work and leisure in pursuit of unanswered occupational callings. Organization Science, 21(5), 973–994. https://doi.org/10.1287/orsc.1090.0497
- Dik, B.J., Duffy, R.D., & Eldridge, B.M. (2009). Calling and vocation in career counseling: Recommendations for promoting meaningful work. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 40(6), 625–632.
- Duffy, R.D., & Sedlacek, W.E. (2007). The presence of and search for a calling: Connections to career development. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 70(3), 590–601.
- Hirschi, A. (2012). Callings and work engagement: Moderated mediation model of work meaningfulness, occupational identity, and occupational self-efficacy. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 59(3), 479–485. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0028949
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.
- Deal, J., Altman, D., & Rogelberg, S. (2010). Millennials at work: What we know and what we need to do (if anything). International Electronic Journal of Elementary Education, 7(3), 301–318.
- Ng, E.S.W., Schweitzer, L., & Lyons, S.T. (2010). New generation, great expectations: A field study of the millennial generation. Journal of Business and Psychology, 25(2), 281–292.
- Rawlins, C., Indvik, J., & Johnson, P.R. (2008). Understanding the new generation: What the millennials cohort absolutely, positively must have at work. Journal of Organizational Culture, Communication and Conflict, 12(2), 1–8.
- Twenge, J.M., Campbell, W.K., & Freeman, E.C. (2012). Generational differences in young adults’ life goals, concern for others, and civic orientation, 1966-2009. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102(5), 1045–62.
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:
- Berg, J.M., Grant, A.M., & Johnson, V. (2010). When callings are calling: Crafting work and leisure in pursuit of unanswered occupational callings. Organization Science, 21(5), 973–994.
- Tims, M., Derks, D., & Bakker, A.B. (2016). Job crafting and its relationships with person-job fit and meaningfulness: A three-wave study. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 92(February), 44–53.
- Wrzesniewski, A., LoBuglio, N., Dutton, J.E., & Berg, J.M. (2013). Job crafting and cultivating positive meaning and identity in work. Advances in Positive Organizational Psychology (Vol. 1). Emerald Group Publishing Limited.
More Coetic resources on Purpose & Meaning…
- Workweek Nudges ToolKit – Boost purpose and meaningfulness at every level of your organization with fun weekly challenges.
- Mission Rater Tool – Make sure your mission statement imbues your entire organization with more purpose and meaning.
- Free Core Values Tool – Figure out which values matter most to your team members.
- 4 Paths to Meaningful Work: What Every Boss Needs to Know – Tips for managers on fostering work meaningfulness.