Working on meaning

29 November, 2017

What is meaningful work?

In the book we focus on meaning as it is experienced by people on a day to day basis. When people say their work is meaningful today, this week, this year, they refer to very concrete experiences such as a quality relationships with fellow workers, having a sense of achievement, making a difference, work messages being hopeful yet real, or their work being aligned with their values. Our research shows that people have these dimensions of meaning in common, and therefore they can be worked within organisations.

The meaning of work can be a very philosophical question to which answers would vary from being drudgery and a punishment for our sins to work simply providing discipline and structure to our lives.  The answer would be influenced by our worldviews, and the worldviews and positions in society of the philosophers who traditionally tried to answer that question.

meaning of work

Why is it important to have meaning at work?

It is simply a more natural way to live. The quest for meaning is inherent to being human. Therefore having meaningful work leads to increased wellbeing and reduction of stress. From an organisational perspective, it also leads to loyalty, commitment, engagement and productivity.

Business fads have come and gone – is meaningful work just the latest fad? Can it become meaningless?

Definitely. Everything management academics discover can be turned into just another technique, divorced from context and designed to make people do things they would not naturally do.

Meaning is not a technique and the search for meaning is not a fad but as old as humanity itself. Management needs to understand that healthy human beings usually already know what is meaningful and withhold their energy and insights when the conditions for meaningfulness are not met, but on the other hand become very responsible and engaged when those conditions are met.

The alternative is to treat human beings as empty vessels needing to be filled with meaning, or manipulating meaning to get people to work too hard. Where this takes place, meaningfulness, like any other management technique, just becomes a fad. Often this is unintentional, managers want to treat staff as human beings but find this overly complex or get scared and withdraw in their own worlds. Our work tries to cut across these voids.

What’s meaningful must differ from person to person – how do teams and organisations deal with those differences?

There are many ways of answering this question (sorry academics always say this). Sometimes when people ask this, they have prejudices and think that the question is more relevant for knowledge workers than blue-collar workers which is not the case. What is different, is whether people see work as their main avenue to meaning. This can also fluctuate over time and depend on where one feels one can contribute most.

It has been found that having meaning in more than one life role leads to more wellbeing, and also that it is healthy to express different dimensions of meaning across different life roles. For example, if your work is mostly about individual achievement, it is healthy to balance this with being part of community in other life roles. With regard to work, most people strive for unity and want to have good quality relationships with fellow workers. The conditions for this, for example not having to compete too much for resources, recognising diverse worldviews and working styles, and having the courage to manage those whose working styles disunite, are the same in all workplaces.

What’s changed in the five years since the first edition of the book?

In our experience, a new generation of managers is becoming aware of something missing. When we now ask in workshops “how important is it that people across your organisation would talk about what is meaningful to them”? Managers on average give it 9 out of 10. When we ask “how often are such conversations held”? They give it 2 or 3 out of 10.

Increasingly there is a sense that space needs to be created in planning, decision-making, delegating and all other day to day organisational functions to ask the question “is this going to make our work more or less meaningful”? “How can we design this change to create more meaning or not lose the meaning we had”?

You moved from Christchurch to Auckland (and AUT) following the earthquakes – how did that impact your research into meaningful work? Did it personally change your own experience of what was meaningful in the workplace?

At the time it did, in times of crisis there is a real sense of community, mutual aid and opportunities arose for people to express all sorts of different skills. For example, an elderly neighbour became incredibly useful as she knew some old tricks for how to remove all the soot that resulted from collapsing chimneys. I also regularly spoke to the road workers in Lyttelton that were trying to resurrect our streets and they experienced a more direct connection between their work and the community’s wellbeing. No doubt this was also helped by people bringing them cake! Over time, lots of meaning was frustrated as people wanted to contribute ideas and actions to the rebuild, which was often thwarted by top down approaches.

As we contemplate the New Year, what changes can individuals and leaders make to create meaning in the workplace?

The first change is to just start talking about meaning and ask questions that elicit meaning. We have some on our website and many more in our book. People use them with partners, teenagers, work-mates and in the c-suite. Don’t be afraid, meaningful conversations enrich your life!

Marjolein Lips-Wiersma, Professor of Ethics and Sustainability Leadership at AUT’s Business School, is a leading expert in developing and supporting meaning in the workplace. Professor Lips-Wiersma has just released the second edition of the book she co-authored with Lani Morris, The Map of Meaningful Work: A Practical Guide to Sustaining Our Humanity.