Dec 20, 2012
Finding Meaning at Work, Even When Your Job Is Dull
Do you experience meaning at work — or just emptiness?
In the United States people spend on average 35 – 40 hours working every week. That’s some 80,000 hours during a career — more time than you will spend with your kids probably. Beyond the paycheck, what does work give you? Few questions could be more important. It is sad to walk through life and experience work as empty, dreadful, a chore — sapping energy out of your body and soul. Yet many employees do, as evidenced by one large-scale study showing that only 31% of employees were engaged.
Work can, however, provide an array of meaningful experiences, even though many employees do not enjoy those in their current job. So, what are the sources of meaningful experiences at work?
We have compiled a list based on our reading of literature in organization behavior and psychology. Many theories speak to meaning at work, including need-based, motivational, status, power, and community theories. The phrase “meaning at work” refers to a person’s experience of something meaningful — something of value — that work provides. That is not the same as “meaningful work,” which refers to the task itself. Work is a social arena that provides other kinds of meaningful experiences as well.
Before we run through the list, it is important to note;
- Different people look for different types of meanings;
- Different workplaces provide different meanings.
1. Contributions beyond yourself. The people at Kiva, a non-profit, channel micro-loans to poor people who can use the money to get a small business going and improve their lives. Their work clearly has a greater purpose — that of helping people in need. This taps into a longing to have a meaningful life defined as making contributions beyond oneself.
The problem is, however, that most work doesn’t have such a higher purpose, either because work is basically mundane or because — let’s face it — the company doesn’t really have a social mission. Critics like Umair Haque argue that work that involves selling yet more burgers, sugar water, fashion clothes and the like has no broader purpose whatsoever. In this view, Coke’s “Open Happiness” is just a slogan devoid of meaning. However, as Teresa Amabile and Steve Kramer argue, much work can be infused with some level of purpose. Companies that make real efforts in social responsibilities do this; for example, Danone, the $25-billion large and highly successful consumer goods company selling yogurt, has defined their business as providing healthy foods (which led them to sell off their biscuit business). The litmus test here is whether employees experience that their work makes positive contributions to others. Then they experience meaning at work.
2. Learning. Many MBA graduates flock to McKinsey, BCG and other consultancies so that they can rapidly acquire valuable skills. General Electric is renowned for developing general managers; and people who want to become marketers crave to learn that trade at Procter & Gamble. Work offers opportunities to learn, expand the horizon, and improve self-awareness. This kind of personal growth is meaningful.
3. Accomplishment. Work is a place to accomplish things and be recognized, which leads to greater satisfaction, confidence and self-worth. In the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi we see Japan’s greatest sushi chef devote his life to making perfect sushi. Well, some critics like Lucy Kellaway at the Financial Times say there isn’t a real social mission here. But, from watching the movie, his quest for perfection — to make better sushi, all the time — gives his life a deep sense of meaning. And for Jiro, the work itself — making the sushi — gives him a deep intrinsic satisfaction.
4. Status. At cocktail parties, a frequent question is, “where do you work?” The ability to rattle of a name like “Oh, I am a doctor at Harvard Medical School” oozes status. For some, that moment is worth all the grueling nightshifts. A high-status organization confers respect, recognition, and a sense of worth on employees, and that provides meaning at work for some.
5. Power. As Paul Lawrence and Nitin Nohria wrote about in their book Driven, for those drawn to power, work provides an arena for acquiring and exercising power. You may not be one of those, but if you are, you experience work as meaningful because you have and can use power.
6. Belonging to a community. Companies like Southwest Airlines go out of their way to create a company atmosphere where people feel they belong. In a society where people increasingly are bowling alone, people crave a place where they can forge friendships and experience a sense of community. The workplace can complement or even be a substitute for other communities (family, the neighborhood, clubs etc.). Workplaces that provide a sense of community give people meaning.
7. Agency. Employees experience meaning at work when what they do actually matters for the organization — when their ideas are listened to and when they see that their contributions has an impact on how the place performs. A sense of real involvement gives people meaning.
8. Autonomy. As Dan Pink shows in his book Drive, autonomy is a great intrinsic motivator. Some people are drawn to certain kinds of work that provides a great deal of autonomy — the absence of others who tell you what to do, and the freedom to do your own work and master your task. For example, entrepreneurs frequently go into business by themselves so that they can be their own boss. This kind of freedom gives work meaning.
There are no doubt other sources as well, but these eight seem to be especially important.
Which of these are important to you? And which does your current workplace give you?
The more of these is not necessarily better. Experiencing one deeply may just be enough. But it’s an issue if you don’t experience any of these.
A version of this article appeared in the December 2012 issue of Harvard Business Review.
Why do some people perform better at work than others?
Morten Hansen reveals the answer in his “Seven Work Smarter Practices” that can be applied by anyone looking to maximize their time and performance.