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Meaningful Work Matters to Your Business Success

Posted by Robin at 10:33 AM on Sep 27, 2016


Do work worth doing

Three men are found smashing boulders with iron hammers. When asked what they are doing, the first man says, "Breaking big rocks into little rocks." The second man says, "Feeding my family." The third man says, "Building a cathedral.”

(Borrowed from Mike Steger in his article on Meaningful Work in Psychology Today who in turn borrowed it from JJ Ryan)

Recent research from Katie Bailey at the University of Sussex and Adrian Madden at the University of Greenwich, London, has shed more light on how we experience meaning at work and what workplace conditions either nurture or destroy the opportunity to find it. This article is intended to help you understand why Meaningful Work is so important, then give you a flavour of their findings.

Why is meaning at work so important?

Our understanding of the importance of meaning in our work has its roots in the existentialist movement that began in the 19th century but probably took on most of its current form through the work of Dr Viktor Frankl in the 1940’s and 50’s as captured in his proclamation that "man’s search for meaning is the primary motivation of his life.” Since then Frankl’s work has since been significantly extended by psychologists around the world to understand more deeply why meaningfulness is so important to us in our working lives and what factors contribute towards our finding it.

Some of the highlights of the more recent research activity include:

  • Employees that derive meaning from their work were 2.8 times more likely to stay, 2.2 times more satisfied and 93% more engaged (The Energy Project & Harvard Business Review, 2014)
  • Meaningful work was found to be the most important factor in commitment, retention and discretionary effort above leadership, managers, colleagues etc. (Paul Fairlie Consulting, 2010)
  • 70% of employees are looking for more meaning at work (Roffey Park, 2003)
  • Organisations that devote resources towards creating meaning at work will experience increased motivation, loyalty, pride and productivity (Penna, 2005)
You would have to be a little bit crazy to disregard the importance of your employees finding meaning in their work to the success of your organisation

When you connect these findings with those studies that highlight the importance of engagement at work (e.g. a 2012 Gallup Meta-analysis found that the top quartile companies were 22% more profitable and had 10% higher customer ratings than the bottom quartile) you would have to be a little bit crazy to disregard the importance of your employees finding meaning in their work to the success of your organisation.

What are the characteristics of meaningful work?

The study carried out by Bailey & Maiden focused on why people found their work meaningful and what they actually experienced when meaning was present for them. They uncovered many interesting and some surprising findings that I’d like to share with you.

Meaning can be derived from any one of the following work factors:

  • The job as a whole;
  • A particular task;
  • Interactions with others; or
  • The overall purpose of the organisation.

Whilst it might just be one of these elements, it is clearly significantly enriched the more elements that are combined - what Bailey & Madden call Holistic Meaningfulness.

Meaning at work is a very personal experience driven by the life experiences of the individual. In other words, what is meaningful to you may not be meaningful to me.

Meaningfulness is not an ‘enduring light’ that we bask in. It is more of a momentary but nevertheless highly memorable self-reflection.

Meaningful moments are not necessarily happy moments

Meaningful moments are not necessarily happy moments. In fact they are more likely to be poignant experiences that connect people with their own life experiences beyond work. Good examples of such experiences can be found in roles that involve nursing sick or injured people where the outcome might not always be a happy one but the dignity and support afforded to a very ill person or their family conveys a deep sense of meaning to the job.

When our work seems devoid of meaning to us it raises questions in our heads similar to “What’s the point of doing this job?” or “Why do I bother?"

Poor management is the number one reason preventing employees from finding meaning at work

Most interesting of all, for me, was that whilst the actual quality of leadership proved not to be a significant factor in determining whether a job was meaningful, poor management is the number one reason preventing employees from finding meaning at work.

Taken together it starts to become clear to us that whilst managers can’t force their employees to accept their views as to why work maybe meaningful, they can make a very significant difference in helping employees discover it for themselves.

Nurturing the Best Conditions to Help Meaning Self-discovery

As leaders you are in a uniquely influential place to help your employees discover meaning in their work

As leaders you are in a uniquely influential place to help your employees discover meaning in their work. The work that is undertaken and the environment that workers exist within (both physical and relational) can be promoted and managed in such a way so that, if there is the potential for a meaningful connection then it will be found more easily. As Bailey and Madden suggest, this is about encouraging an ecosystem where meaning at work can thrive. The following ideas will help you nurture that ecosystem.

Clarify the Good your Business Does

All businesses exist because people (their customers) perceive value in what they do or make. If your employees perceive the value that your business offers to be something that is making a positive difference to the world beyond them and this difference is something that matters to them on a personal level then this creates an opportunity for your employee to find meaning in what they do - something that Madden & Bailey call Organisation Meaningfulness.

Your opportunity is to help clarify the value that your business offers to the outside world. This can be something that a great mission or purpose statement can make a very significant difference towards but even with something like this in place, clarifying the difference that your organisation makes will provide a great push in the right direction.

Strangely, businesses (and public sector organisations for that matter) seem to be very poor at helping their employees see the value in what they do for the outside world. This might be because it seems too obvious to bother with or, more likely, no-one has ever really made a serious attempt at understanding that difference beyond delivering against a recognised need. I’ve shared a good example of this before with the ground-care machinery repair specialists that I helped to recognise the difference they made to the leisure time of people in their community by helping to keep public parks both beautiful and useful for sport and children’s play. I am also reminded of the poor, maligned traffic wardens who are not generally positively regarded yet help towns to share out public parking more fairly, prevent dangerous traffic situations from arising and put more money back into the council coffers to be spent on better amenities - next time you get a parking ticket why don’t you thank them for providing a really valuable service!?

The point is, even if you think it’s obvious, there is always value in clarifying your organisational purpose. Aside from the meaning benefits the chances are that that clarification will help to deliver even better services and products and result in better marketing.

Show Your People Why They Matter and That They Matter

Too many people go to work on a daily basis with the feeling that if they didn’t turn up they doubt anyone would notice

Jobs exist because they contribute to the goals of the business. Sadly, too many people go to work on a daily basis with the feeling that if they didn’t turn up they doubt anyone would notice. If that was the case then perhaps it’s time to make some changes but, most of the time, this is much more about a lack of appreciation. A lack of appreciation by the employee of the difference that their job makes to the success of the business and a lack of appreciation by the employer for the contribution that the employee makes to the success of the business.

As a leader you need to help your people understand why they are so important to everyone’s success. From receptionists to managers, from the cleaners to the finance team, EVERYBODY is necessary for your success and all of them need to understand why their role is so important. A good example of this is the role of the receptionist. At first we might think of this role as 'we just need someone to answer the phone.' Then we might recognise that this person might be the first person that a potential customer talks to in your business; how they handle that conversation can make a big difference as to whether you get the business from that customer. If we go further we might see that the better understanding that the receptionist has of who does what in your business then the more effective they can be at getting your business callers to the right person as swiftly as possible or even not letting through people who might damage your business. They make a significant contribution to the success of your business but, more often than not, they don’t understand how. You can clarify this for them.

A simple "thank you" is the bedrock of all recognition

You also need to show your people that they matter by recognising the contribution that they make. It’s not enough to say ‘I see no problems’ just once a year (or less). Recognition needs to be a consistent factor in your work environment. A simple ‘"thank you" are the bedrock of all recognition so don’t be afraid to use them. Make them meaningful by being clear what the thank you is for and the difference it made - the only thing worse than not thanking people is a disingenuous pat on the back. And when they hit a good milestone, when they make a bigger difference, why not go a bit further than a thank you with a little celebration. Go on - let yourself go. You might even have some fun!

Connect your People

As well as these approaches there are many other ways leaders can support their employees’ quest for meaning. This can include helping them to connect with the recipients of their efforts at work or beyond and nurturing an environment that provides supportive interpersonal relationships in the workplace.

I recently read of a Danish company that made colostomy bags. By helping their employees meet directly with the people that benefit from their products and seeing the very positive difference that they made to their lives the company made a huge positive difference to how their employees felt about working for that company and in turn enhanced to meaning present in each of their jobs. Not all companies can offer such obviously life-enhancing outcomes to share with their employees but (nearly) all of us do make a positive difference to the world beyond us and we can do a better job to help to connect our people with those differences giving more meaning to why we come into work.

Connection is also an important factor within a workplace. Work can be stressful. Deadlines, difficult customers, challenging emotional situations are common features of work today. Having a support network around you at work that is more familiar with the challenges you face and that may even be able to offer understanding, if not guidance, will make a big difference to the emotional safety of their environment.

As a leader, you can make a big difference with supporting connectivity at work and beyond. Ensuring that people aren’t isolated in their roles (think stand-alone jobs or remote workers), that they have places like communal spaces to go to to offload their issues and that they have time to do this in is all something you can help with.

The Seven Deadly Sins of Meaninglessness

Sadly, as we have heard already meaning at work can be quite easily destroyed. To help you understand what NOT to do Bailey & Madden identified the Seven Deadly Sins of Meaninglessness. These are as follows.

  • Take care not to disconnect people from their values (the things that might give them meaning). The recurring theme here was the tension between cost and the quality of work - always a difficult circle to square. People who had entered professions driven by a desire to do something they considered meaningful, such as craftsmen and women wanting to produce beautiful artefacts, will find their sense of meaning deadened when they are required to cut corners for cost reasons.
  • Don’t take your employees for granted. Lack of recognition (as you we’ve heard above) invokes feelings of pointlessness and is perhaps one of the easiest things to fix. How hard is it to say well done or thank you?
  • Avoid people feeling that they are being given pointless work by doing what you can not to dilute their 'calling'. Why should any work be pointless? If it needs to be done then surely it has a point? The perception of pointlessness depends on how far away it takes people away from what really drives them to do their roles. In the research bureaucracy was cited as the biggest bugbear for both nurses and academics and, I can imagine, police officers feeling this way too. Job design has a lot to answer for here as clearly does cost but where people are driven by a great calling to do the jobs like nursing or policing it is such a shame when we demotivate them by diluting their calling.
  • Don’t treat people unfairly. No surprises here. If people perceive that they have been treated less favourably than a colleague or not in accordance with a reasonable expectation for a process then naturally ‘Why do I bother?” will rise to the surface for them. Transparency in how decisions are made can greatly limit this perception.
  • Don’t override your people’s better judgement. Why employ experts if you are not going to use their expertise? As leaders we certainly don’t have all answers and we shouldn't be expected to have them. We earn much more respect by seeking answers from our experts in their areas of expertise and, more importantly, we’re better informed to make better decisions.
  • Don’t disconnect people from supportive relationships. Isolation and marginalisation at work were shown to be linked to meaninglessness. As we have heard above, our work environments benefit greatly from the support networks and camaraderie of people facing the same challenges together. This is especially one to watch out for with remote workers - how are you connecting everybody together on a daily basis?
  • Don’t put people at risk of physical or emotional harm. If work environments do not place significant weight on the importance of safeguarding their employees then it is unsurprising that meaninglessness in roles quickly arises. There should be no excuses here really.


As Bailey & Madden conclude 'the benefits for individuals and organizations that accrue from meaningful workplaces can be immense. Organizations that succeed in this are more likely to attract, retain, and motivate the employees they need to build sustainably for the future, and to create the kind of workplaces where human beings can thrive.’ I’m not sure I can add to that!

Clearly this is only a snapshot of their research. For a deeper understanding I encourage you to follow the links to their article on MIT Sloan. Happy reading.

Meaning Conference Logo

In one of those happily fortuitous moments the aforementioned Katie Bailey is coming to talk at this year’s Meaning Conference in Brighton on November 17th, 2016. This will be my fifth year in attendance, which, I think, highlights the value I get out of it so why not join me there. Further details of the conference and tickets can be found here -

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