Finding meaning in the world of work
When I was younger, I didn’t really contemplate the meaning of life as much as I do nowadays. I remember perceiving the question to be too grandiose (and truthfully speaking boring) to attend. At some point, however, I remember becoming obsessed about the meaning of life and rather fascinated about understanding the real meaning of ‘a meaningful work’. In the midst of all this contemplation, I was lucky to find my own purpose in life, which is to assist and coach individuals and organisations to reach their full potential. I loved the great sense of fulfilment, it was like the light bulb went off in my head when I discovered a passion for helping people to grow and organisations to be happier.
While “meaningful work” might sound like just another fluffy, feel-good ideal, it turns out that employees want and need more than a payslip to stay engaged at work. The search for meaning has been well-recognised in management literature. Intrinsic motivation, work alienation, transformational leadership, and organisational culture theory all discreetly assume that human beings yearn from meaningful work, and many organisational practices have been developed on the basis of these theories. It just goes to show that money, although important, is not always the ultimate motivator for employees. Every employee wants to be engaged at work. That is the most obvious difference from a career and a job.
A study led by Professor Catherine Bailey (2016) found that it really matters to people to know that their work makes a positive difference to others, whether that be people they know, clients or customers, colleagues, or even future generations. The main way that employees find meaning is to reflect on their work. Researchers were able to discover that unlike with satisfaction and engagement, which can be managed with company policies and initiatives, meaningfulness is much more individual and personal. Their research also 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.
In 1999, Curt Coffman’s and Jim Harter’s research investigated the relationship between employee perceptions and business. The outcomes for engagement was the following: “The data clearly show that within successful business units employees have clear expectations, close relationships, can see how what they do relates to “something significant,” and have an ongoing opportunity to contribute to that “something significant” while learning and growing as individuals.” Many of us seem to derive satisfaction from being able to create a positive result.
Something else to consider is research from Teresa Amabile and Steven J. Kramer discussed in a 2011 Harvard Business Review article, which talked about the “progress principle.” Their research concluded that “of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work. And the more frequently people experience that sense of progress, the more likely they are to be creatively productive in the long run. Whether they are trying to solve a major scientific mystery or simply produce a high-quality product or service, everyday progress — even a small win — can make all the difference in how they feel and perform.”
It is an essential quality of a compassionate and wise leader to be able to create an environment which help individuals find their work meaningful and where employees of any age can make a difference and provide value. Leaders need to also re-connect with their own sense of purpose to be able to continue to fuel their own inner passion. And just as crucially, every employee should remember that what is important is not the nature of the work itself, but the relationship between the individual and their work.
Employee connection is the key and driver to success. I believe that all employees and co-workers benefit from inclusion and having the feeling of personal value. Organisations that pay attention to this are more likely to attract, retain, and motivate the employees they need, to build the kind of workplaces where people thrive and love to work.
People Operations Manager