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How to make work meaningful - and keep it that way


Meaningful work is critical to our wellbeing and overall happiness in life. But ‘what makes work meaningful – or meaningless’? Catherine Bailey and Adrian Madden attempt to answer this important question in their paper which I review here and urge you to download yourself. It may be the most important thing you read all year.

In a nutshell Bailey & Madden say work meaningfulness is profoundly important, largely a personal discovery, easily degraded, and business leaders need to cultivate an environment where it can grow and be fostered for employees to flourish.

Bailey & Madden’s research revealed that meaningful work is:

1. Self-Transcendent – it can matter more to others than the individuals themselves.

2. Poignant – profundity creates meaning; meaningful moments ain’t always positive.

3. Episodic – nor is meaning sustained, it’s often irregular and fleeting.

4. Reflective – it’s often discovered after the event, in hindsight

5. Personal – it’s different for different people and typically gained in the wider context of somebody’s personal life experiences.

Lessons? Service and contribution to others is a very important source of meaning. It's nevertheless important for workers to be able to connect with the result of their labour. Something I’ve found a persistent issue for many of the disaffected employees I’ve coached is the absence of such a connection, because in large organisations it’s easy to get distanced from the outcomes you contribute towards. Managers and team leaders therefore need to help employees make those connections, by creating opportunities for them for instance.

The irregular nature of meaningfulness makes it important for us all to measure our expectations when it comes to experiencing meaning from work. The researchers’ finding that meaning sometimes only comes after the event compares to my own anecdotal experience with clients. The lesson? Stick things out and commit to a particular endeavour even if the meaning of it isn’t obvious at the time. It may only strike you when the task is over.

But what makes work meaningless? According to Bailey & Madden there are ‘Seven deadly sins’ managers and leaders ought to watch for to avoid damaging employees ability to experience meaning from work:

1. Disconnecting people from their values

2. Taking employees for granted

3. Giving people pointless work to do

4. Treating people unfairly

5. Overriding people’s better judgment

6. Disconnecting people from supportive relationships

7. Putting people at risk of harm

Lessons? Fail to attend to the four enablers of employee engagement – Strategic Narrative, Engaging Managers, Employee Voice and Organisational Integrity and you risk not just reducing engagement but destroying meaning for employees. As ever, good managers who regularly praise staff for a job well done are key, but they also need to have team roles and remits tightly defined so responsibilities are clear, spend time explaining - even apologising for - less well purposed work, treat employees fairly, be supported by a good rewards structure, and ensure employees can commune with other co-workers and are never put in harm’s way, unnecessarily.

So that managers can deliver on these it’s incumbent on senior management and the executive to ensure organisational values are explicit, clearly communicated and honoured so employees don’t have their expectations and professional integrity confounded by policies which force them to deviate or compromise. They also need to involve employees in the conversation over how the work gets done – employee voice - and act on what those employees need for a meaningful working environment.

So you know how to avoid meaninglessness but how to support meaningfulness? Bailey and Madden stress that while meaning is personal it’s also conditional. This means if you run an organisation you can cultivate an ecosystem that helps employees to experience greater meaningfulness and mitigate the factors that defeat it – a bit like a gardener being vigilant against pests. The fruit of all this is likely to be a happier, more motivated and engaged workforce, higher profits and reduced costs.

The authors believe four elements combine holistically to support a meaningfulness ecosystem, with obvious resonance to the four enablers of engagement:

1. Organisational meaningfulness – one for leaders. Roughly equitable to the engagement enabler ‘strategic narrative’, this is the organisation’s ability to articulate it’s why, its purpose, its raison d’être, with integrity and authenticity and to communicate this to employees in a way that doesn’t invite scepticism and helps them appreciate the greater good their work contributes to. Having good follow through and a bold, actively pursued CSR strategy are surely key also.

2. Job meaningfulness – for managers: enable employees to appreciate how their own job fits in and contributes to the organisations outcomes, while recognising that not all meaning derives from positive experiences.

3. Task meaningfulness – for managers and employees: be prepared to sift some sand to find those gold nuggets of meaning and above all be realistic – most jobs necessitate a range of tasks some of which you’ll find tedious. Spending a few minutes each day being grateful for what you have is a great little exercise that can help here (one I often recommend to coaching clients).

4. Interactional meaningfulness: for leaders and managers: creating opportunities for employees to connect with the beneficiaries of their work and relate to colleagues will drive up meaningfulness and reducing such opportunities will send it the opposite direction.

Walkoach's observations

  • Considering what makes work meaningful and applying the authors’ recommendations will undoubtedly enhance any existing measures to raise employee engagement. In fact I’d incorporate them into your employee engagement strategy right now; you can only benefit.

  • Creating the conditions to support meaningfulness and reduce meaninglessness will need strong leadership and involvement of all tiers of staff from the top to the bottom. Organisations with a more agile and collaborative culture will have a head-start here.

  • Understanding what makes work meaningful - and meaningless – for individual staff, teams, and departments requires a conversation, probably confidential, facilitated and repeated at periodic intervals. Whether you get managers to have that conversation, you do it in house or draft in a specialist third party (such as Wilkoach & Associates), don’t put off having it and act promptly on what you learn.

  • Accept that you are empowered and responsible for finding meaning in work. As Viktor Frankl said in his seminal work ‘Man’s search for meaning’, sometimes it’s the only choice we have and it is by making that choice that we empower ourselves even in the direst circumstances. The point is we don’t offload meaning solely to our employer if we’re an employee. Be proactive as Covey said, and work out what you stand for and what matters to you. And if work is too often meaningless, demand the powers that be address it and be prepared to move on if you’re still not satisfied. Seeing a coach can really help here.

  • At the risk of sounding trite it is better to be in work and have the opportunity to find meaning than not be in work (I speak as someone who was unemployed). Always be grateful for what you have.

  • Attend to your well being so your door is always open to fully experiencing meaning when it randomly pays you visits. In fact this pretty much applies to everything in life.

At Walkoach we're passionate about helping you or your organisation make work meaningful so together you flourish, whether through our coaching, training or employee engagement advice. Talk to us about how we can help.

#employeeengagment #meaningfulwork

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