Why We Don’t Talk About Meaning at Work

Meaningful work will remain elusive if managers don’t learn to overcome four barriers to healthy conversations about what gives individuals their sense of purpose.

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Brian Stauffer/theispot.com

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, meaningful work was already high on the management agenda. Employees were exhorted to find their “calling”; leaders, their “why”; organizations, their “true north.” There were good reasons for this: Studies have shown that high levels of meaning and purpose lead to improved engagement, productivity, and innovation.1

But the pandemic has raised the stakes even higher. It has caused many of us to pause and reevaluate the role work plays in our lives and what truly matters to us. Employers who can’t offer meaningful work risk demotivating or losing valued employees — the very people needed to drive organizational growth and renewal.

Faced with this challenge, managers may be tempted to amplify internal messaging around corporate purpose. While purpose beyond profit is vital for a host of environmental, social, and financial reasons, relying on this approach alone to raise levels of individual meaning can backfire.2 The more employers try to tell employees where to find the meaning in their work, the less likely people are to actually find it. An authentic sense of purpose is not simply imposed; it is discovered.

In other words, meaning-making should be a grassroots process. But first, managers and employees must learn how to talk with one another about it. Engaging in dialogue is integral to discovering meaning. Talking with a trusted conversational partner helps us shape how we understand ourselves, interpret the world, and relate to others. And as we listen to others speak about meaning, and they listen to us, we help one another discover it.

We have found in our research and consulting work over the years that four barriers make such conversations difficult.3 Let’s look at each of these barriers — and how to overcome them.

Talking About Meaning Can Be Unsettling

When we ask people what meaningful work means to them, we often hear nervous laughter and comments like “That’s a funny question to ask” or “I don’t know.” Concerned that they don’t have a ready answer, they often need to be coaxed into discussion. Existential contemplations like “Why am I here?” and “What is the significance of this?” can feel quite intangible.4 In the workplace, where it is important to appear competent and in control, not knowing feels threatening to our identity.

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References

1. C. Bailey, R. Yeoman, A. Madden, et al., “A Review of the Empirical Literature on Meaningful Work: Progress and Research Agenda,” Human Resource Development Review 18, no. 1 (March 2019): 83-113.

2. C. Bulgarella, “Purpose-Driven Companies Evolve Faster Than Others,” Forbes, Sept. 21, 2018, www.forbes.com; and C. Bailey, A. Madden, K. Alfes, et al., “The Mismanaged Soul: Existential Labor and the Erosion of Meaningful Work,” Human Resource Management Review 27, no. 3 (September 2017): 416-430.

3. M. Lips-Wiersma and L. Morris, “The Map of Meaningful Work: A Practical Guide to Sustaining Our Humanity,” 2nd ed. (Abingdon, United Kingdom: Routledge, 2018).

4. A. Stephan, “Emotions, Existential Feelings, and Their Regulation,” Emotion Review 4, no. 2 (April 2012): 157-62.

5. A.J. DuBrin, “Impression Management in the Workplace: Research, Theory, and Practice,” 1st ed. (New York: Routledge, 2011).

6. Lips-Wiersma and Morris, “The Map of Meaningful Work.”

7. M. Lips-Wiersma and S. Wright, “Measuring the Meaning of Meaningful Work: Development and Validation of the Comprehensive Meaningful Work Scale (CMWS),” Group & Organization Management 37, no. 5 (October 2012): 655-685.

8. J.E. Crossman, “Being on the Outer: The Risks and Benefits of Spiritual Self-Disclosure in the Australian Workplace,” Journal of Management & Organization 21, no. 6 (March 2015): 772-785.

9. C. Rodriguez-Delgado, F. Kai-Hwa Wang, G. Hays, et al., “Schools Across the Country Are Struggling to Find Staff. Here’s Why,” PBS NewsHour, Nov. 23, 2021, www.pbs.org; and E. Yong, “Why Health-Care Workers Are Quitting in Droves,” The Atlantic, Nov. 16, 2021, www.theatlantic.com.

10. N. Lehmann-Willenbrock and S. Kauffeld, “The Downside of Communication: Complaining Cycles in Group Discussions,” in “The Handbook for Working With Difficult Groups: How They Are Difficult, Why They Are Difficult and What You Can Do About It,” ed. S. Schuman (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010), 33-54.

11. Ibid.

12. S. Frémeaux and B. Pavageau, “Meaningful Leadership: How Can Leaders Contribute to Meaningful Work?” Journal of Management Inquiry 31, no. 1 (January 2020): 54-66.

13. C. Bailey and A. Madden, “What Makes Work Meaningful — or Meaningless,” MIT Sloan Management Review 57, no. 4 (June 2016): 52-63; and T. Amabile and S. Kramer, “How Leaders Kill Meaning at Work,” McKinsey Quarterly, Jan. 1, 2012, www.mckinsey.com.

14. D. Tourish, “Leadership and Meaningful Work,” in “The Oxford Handbook of Meaningful Work,” eds. R. Yeoman, C. Bailey, A. Madden, et al. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019), 327-346.

15. K. Grayson, “Cultivating Trust Is Critical — and Surprisingly Complex,” Kellogg Insight, March 7, 2016, www.insight.kellogg.northwestern.edu.

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