What Makes Work Meaningful — Or Meaningless

New research offers insights into what gives work meaning — as well as into common management mistakes that can leave employees feeling that their work is meaningless.

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Meaningful work is something we all want. The psychiatrist Viktor Frankl famously described how the innate human quest for meaning is so strong that, even in the direst circumstances, people seek out their purpose in life.1 More recently, researchers have shown meaningfulness to be more important to employees than any other aspect of work, including pay and rewards, opportunities for promotion, or working conditions.2 Meaningful work can be highly motivational, leading to improved performance, commitment, and satisfaction.3 But, so far, surprisingly little research has explored where and how people find their work meaningful and the role that leaders can play in this process.4

We interviewed 135 people working in 10 very different occupations and asked them to tell us stories about incidents or times when they found their work to be meaningful and, conversely, times when they asked themselves, “What’s the point of doing this job?” We expected to find that meaningfulness would be similar to other work-related attitudes, such as engagement or commitment, in that it would arise purely in response to situations within the work environment. However, we found that, unlike these other attitudes, meaningfulness tended to be intensely personal and individual;5 it was often revealed to employees as they reflected on their work and its wider contribution to society in ways that mattered to them as individuals. People tended to speak of their work as meaningful in relation to thoughts or memories of significant family members such as parents or children, bridging the gap between work and the personal realm. We also expected meaningfulness to be a relatively enduring state of mind experienced by individuals toward their work; instead, our interviewees talked of unplanned or unexpected moments during which they found their work deeply meaningful.

We were anticipating that our data would show that the meaningfulness experienced by employees in relation to their work was clearly associated with actions taken by managers, such that, for example, transformational leaders would have followers who found their work meaningful, whereas transactional leaders would not.6 Instead, our research 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.

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1. V.E. Frankl, “Man’s Search For Meaning” (Boston: Beacon Press, 1959).

2. W.F. Cascio, “Changes in Workers, Work, and Organizations,” vol. 12, chap. 16 in “Handbook of Psychology,” ed. W. Borman, R. Klimoski, and D. Ilgen (New York: Wiley, 2003).

3. M.G. Pratt and B.E. Ashforth, “Fostering Meaningfulness in Working and at Work,” in “Positive Organizational Scholarship,” ed. K.S. Cameron, J.E. Dutton, and R.E. Quinn (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2003).

4. C. Bailey, R. Yeoman, A. Madden, M. Thompson, and G. Kerridge, “A Narrative Evidence Synthesis of Meaningful Work: Progress and Research Agenda” (paper to be presented at the U.S. Academy of Management Conference, Anaheim, California, Aug. 5-9, 2016); and M.G. Pratt, C. Pradies, and D.A. Lepisto, “Doing Well, Doing Good, and Doing With: Organizational Practices For Effectively Cultivating Meaningful Work,” in “Purpose and Meaning in the Workplace,” ed. B.J. Dik, Z.S. Byrne, and M.F. Steger (Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association, 2013), 173-196.

5. We have defined meaningful work as arising “when an individual perceives an authentic connection between their work and a broader transcendent life purpose beyond the self.” See C. Bailey and A. Madden, “Time Reclaimed: Temporality and the Experience of Meaningful Work,” Work, Employment, & Society (October 2015), doi: 10.1177/0950017015604100. Meaningfulness is therefore different from engagement, which is defined as a positive work-related attitude comprising vigor, dedication, and absorption. See W.B. Schaufeli, “What Is Engagement?,” in “Employee Engagement in Theory and Practice,” ed. C. Truss, K. Alfes, R. Delbridge, A. Shantz, and E. Soane (London: Routledge, 2014), 15-35.

6. K. Arnold, N. Turner, J. Barling, E.K. Kelloway, and M.C. McKee, “Transformational Leadership and Psychological Wellbeing: The Mediating Role of Meaningful Work,” Journal of Occupational Health Psychology 12, no. 3 (July 2007): 193-203.

7. M. Lips-Wiersma and S. Wright, “Measuring the Meaning of Meaningful Work: Development and Validation of the Comprehensive Meaningful Work Scale,” Group & Organization Management 37, no. 5 (October 2012): 665-685.

8. B.D. Rosso, K.H. Dekas, and A. Wrzesniewski, “On the Meaning of Work: A Theoretical Integration and Review,” Research in Organizational Behavior 30 (2010): 91-127.

9. A. Maslow, “Motivation and Personality” (New York: Harper and Row, 1954).

10. H. Ersner-Hershfield, J.A. Mikels, S.J. Sullivan, and L.L. Carstensen, “Poignancy: Mixed Emotional Experience in the Face of Meaningful Endings,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 94, no. 1 (January 2008): 158-167.

11. B.S. Held, “The Tyranny of the Positive Attitude in America: Observation and Speculation,” Journal of Clinical Psychology 58, no. 9 (September 2002): 965-991.

12. J.S. Bunderson and J.A. Thompson, “The Call of the Wild: Zookeepers, Callings, and the Double-Edged Sword of Deeply Meaningful Work,” Administrative Science Quarterly 54, no.1 (March 2009): 32-57.

13. S. Cartwright and N. Holmes, “The Meaning of Work: The Challenge of Regaining Employee Engagement and Reducing Cynicism,” Human Resource Management Review 16, no. 2 (June 2006): 199-208.

14. F. Herzberg, “The Motivation-Hygiene Concept and Problems of Manpower,” Personnel Administrator 27, no. 1 (1964): 3-7.

15. M. Lips-Wiersma and L. Morris, “Discriminating Between ‘Meaningful Work’ and the ‘Management of Meaning,’” Journal of Business Ethics 88, no. 3 (September 2009): 491-511.

16. Ibid.

17. Ibid.

18. N. Chalofsky, “Meaningful Workplaces” (San Francisco: Wiley, 2010); and F.O. Walumbwa, A.L. Christensen, and M.K. Muchiri, “Transformational Leadership and Meaningful Work,” in Dik, Byrne, and Steger, “Purpose and Meaning,” 197-215.

19. J.M. Podolny, R. Khurana, and M. Hill-Popper, “Revisiting the Meaning of Leadership,” Research in Organizational Behavior 26 (2004), doi:10.1016/S0191-3085(04)26001-4.

20. Organizational theorist Marya L. Besharov highlights the challenge of managing in an organizational setting where employees have differing views over which values matter the most and points out the “dark side” of seeking to impose a unitary organizational ideology on employees. Based on our research, we take the view here that in general terms employees welcome a broad statement of organizational purpose and values that gives them the space to interpret it in a way that is meaningful for them. See M.L. Besharov, “The Relational Ecology of Identification: How Organizational Identification Emerges When Individuals Hold Divergent Values,” Academy of Management Journal 57, no. 5 (October 2014): 1485-1512.

21. A. Wrzesniewski and J.E. Dutton, “Crafting a Job: Revisioning Employees as Active Crafters of Their Work,” Academy of Management Review 26, no. 2 (April 2001): 179-201; and J.M. Berg, J.E. Dutton, and A. Wrzesniewski, “Job Crafting and Meaningful Work,” in Dik, Byrne, and Steger, “Purpose and Meaning,” 81-104.

22. B.E. Ashforth and G.E. Kreiner, “Profane or Profound? Finding Meaning in Dirty Work,” in Dik, Byrne, and Steger, “Purpose and Meaning,” 127-150.

23. Held, “Tyranny of the Positive Attitude”; and Ersner-Hershfield et al., “Poignancy: Mixed Emotional Experience.”

24. Lips-Wiersma and Morris, “Discriminating Between ‘Meaningful Work.’”

25. A. Grant, “Relational Job Design and the Motivation to Make a Prosocial Difference,” Academy of Management Review 32, no. 2 (2007): 393-417.

26. Lips-Wiersma and Wright, “Measuring the Meaning.”

27. A. Grant, “Leading With Meaning: Beneficiary Contact, Prosocial Impact, and the Performance Effects of Transformational Leadership,” Academy of Management Journal 55, no. 2 (April 2012): 458-476.

28. A. Wrzesniewski, J.E. Dutton, and G. Debebe, “Interpersonal Sensemaking and the Meaning of Work,” Research in Organizational Behavior 25 (2003): 93-135.

29. Grant, “Leading With Meaning.”

30. Lips-Wiersma and Wright, “Measuring the Meaning.”

31. N. Chalofsky, “An Emerging Construct for Meaningful Work,” Human Resource Development International 6, no. 1 (2003): 69-83.

i. Bailey and Madden, “Time Reclaimed: Temporality and the Experience.”

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Comments (8)
Chandra Pandey
A very thoughtful  subject & reading offering on evergreen subject.
Some commentators have argued that it is not the role of the corporation to provide meaningfulness in people's lives. This article provides a powerful argument that if we do not invest in avoiding the 7 deadly sins of meaninglessness we are working against a very powerful aspect of our humanity that will inevtiablly weaken our corporations. Indeed  creating an environment in which people can find meaningfulness is both 
strategic and efficient, while also plays to who we are.
Very insightful research validating my own intuitive thinking. Very timely too for me personally as I currently engaged in a project aiming to enhance  employee engagement.
This work and research have similar findings to the work done by Prof T Amabile and S Kramer, The Progress Principle.

They found that it is the small wins every day which create the biggest intrinsic motivation.  "Creating forward movement in meaningful work" people need to have satisfying inner work live.
I highly recommend reading this book in conjunction with the research above
Katie Bailey
Thank you for your positive comments on our article. I do agree that there is much more that managers and leaders can do to help individuals find their work meaningful.  In our study, we found 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. Leaders who create opportunities for people to meet with the beneficiaries of their work, and who seek out ways to show employees how important their work is to the wider world, will certainly help in this process.  Unfortunately, it is all too easy to get bogged down in the day-to-day routines of the working day and to forget the significance of these wider issues for human well-being.
P Kumar
A very good opportunity to understand the real meaning of  'a meaningful work'. As an academician into corporate training, I get lot of satisfaction seeing positive change in the mindset and methods of managers. I really am able to feel that I'm actually doing a meaningful work. This article validates it further. I've even instances of 'flow' as explained by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and deep involvement and liking for the job. Even if I find my job meaningful; looking from a broader and practical perspective, two important aspects of the 'seven deadly sins' very correctly mentioned which dilute the meaningfulness are - treating people unfairly and, taking your employees for granted (lack of recognition and appreciation). Hope the essence of this article gets imbibed by relevant people mostly from the top management who can create tremendous change towards a conducive organizational climate leading to unprecedented engagement levels of people.
Jaba Gupta
Excellent article! 
It is perhaps the most engrossing one on the topic that I have read after Viktor E. Frankl's book, Man's Search for Meaning.
Speck Kevin Pratt
Just wanted to say thanks for writing this. I'm currently trying to right the ship of an international nonprofit organization that's largely volunteer run. Being able to point to these Seven Deadly Sins and cite this article should make a huge difference. I've seen 6 of the 7 committed over the last year multiple times.