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Are you making work meaningless?

June 14, 2016

Article courtesy of SBAM Approved Partner ASE
Author: Ed Holinski

Employee engagement is at the top of many organizations’ priority lists. Meaningful work contributes greatly to engagement, yet there has been little research on how to make work more (or less) meaningful for employees. A recent article, “What Makes Work Meaningful – Or Meaningless” begins to address this void in a significant way. Recognizing that meaningful work can contribute to higher performance, the authors, Catherine Bailey and Adrian Madden, interviewed 135 people to determine what drove meaning for these employees. The findings were surprising and insightful.

They expected meaningfulness to be an enduring state, and expected a direct link between factors that drive up meaningfulness and factors that eroded it. However, they were surprised by what the interviews and their conclusions revealed.

The authors identified Five Qualities of Meaningful Work which were very personal and episodic:

  1. Self-Transcendent: This was less about the relationship between the individual and the work, and more about how the work impacted others, groups or the broader environment.
  2. Poignant: It was interesting to note that meaningful work evoked a mixture of emotions, including discomfort and painful thoughts. So it is not all about joy coming directly from work.
  3. Episodic: The authors were struck by the fact that meaning was episodic instead of sustained. Nevertheless, these peaks became memorable and the memory of them adds to meaning.
  4. Reflective: It was interesting that meaning did not come in the moment as much as it came upon reflection, by connecting the achievements to broader life meaning.
  5. Personal: Contrary to many of the beliefs today, there is little that managers or organizations can do to contribute directly to these moments of meaningfulness. 

What proved to be more important for leaders and managers was to understand the different factors that detract from meaningfulness, which the authors labeled 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.

It is worthwhile to read this article and then to reflect on what you can, and cannot, impact. This will hopefully encourage managers to stay congruent with desirable values, show appreciation for employees and listen intently to them to learn how to address the other areas.

As a capstone to the article, the authors also offer an ecosystem construct that managers should consider:

  1. Organizational Meaningfulness
  2. Job Meaningfulness
  3. Task Meaningfulness
  4. Interactional Meaningfulness

Designing and implementing this ecosystem helps employees connect their work to the impact it has on others, and creates a sight line from task to job to the organization, and finally to the social value it provides for others. Even the most tedious tasks can be meaningful if the work contributes to a greater good.

So there are a few takeaways we might consider to support meaningfulness and not detract from it:

  • Understand that you cannot do as much as you may have thought to contribute to meaningfulness. 
  • Since this is so personal, take the time to understand your employees and what motivates them. Then you will better understand congruence and how to support them.
  • Know that many things you do today, consciously or unconsciously, may be detracting from the meaningfulness of work. Understand each of the factors and consider how you might address them. 
  • Go out of your way to include employees in meaningful ways. 
  • Respect employees as equals and value who they are and what they do. Mindset is important. 
  •  Lead your unit and organization in a way that connects tasks, jobs and the broader organizational context. Connect your organization’s work to adding social value.

Meaningful work is important. We can all personally reflect on our own moments of meaning and how we still draw on those memories. We need to go out of our way to create opportunities for others to have similar moments. This can be very motivational and thereby contribute to higher productivity and effectiveness. 

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