People are more likely to view work as meaningful when it mattered to others more than just to themselves. In our article, “What Makes Work Meaningful?”, we highlighted some research findings on the qualities of meaningful work.
Professor Katie Bailey, from the University of Sussex, and her research team interviewed 135 people working in 10 very different occupations (retail assistants, solicitors, nurses, soldiers, stonemasons, street sweepers, entrepreneurs, priests, artists, writers and academics) and explored what makes work meaningful for them and also, what led to a feeling of meaningless.
The researchers found that that there were five key qualities of meaningful work and that times when people found their work meaningful were often intensely personal. Meaningfulness is bound up with feeling a sense of accomplishment and doing a good job.
For organisation designers, leaders and managers, it is interesting to investigate the question: What are the factors that serve to destroy the meaningfulness that individuals find in their work?
We have all worked in work environments that were dysfunctional in some way, I certainly have. Tolstoy observed that happy families are alike, but unhappy families are unhappy in their own special way. It’s similar with organisations.
“All happy organisations are alike; each unhappy organisation is unhappy in its own way.” Tolstoy (Part-time #OD Consultant)
— Andrew Spence (@AndySpence) 7 June 2014
Working out why an organisation is not a positive environment is a complex task, but employees working in jobs they don’t find meaningful is likely to be a contributing factor.
Here are some of the factors that destroy meaningful work, some of which might resonate with you too? (Listed in order from most to least grievous).
The Seven Deadly Sins of Meaningful Work
1 Disconnect people from values
Those interviewed often talked about a disconnect between their own values and those of their employer or work group as the major cause of a sense of futility and meaninglessness. This issue was raised most frequently as a source of meaninglessness in work. A recurring theme was the tension between an organisational focus on the bottom line and the individual’s focus on the quality or professionalism of work. One stonemason commented that he found the organisation’s focus on cost “deeply depressing.”
2 Take people for granted
The lack of recognition for hard work by organisational leaders was frequently cited as invoking a feeling of pointlessness. For example Sales Assistants talked of bosses who did not thank them for taking on additional work.
3 Give people pointless work
Individuals had a strong sense of what their job should involve and how they should be spending their time. A feeling of meaninglessness arose when they were required to perform tasks that did not fit that sense. Nurses, academics, artists, and clergy all cited bureaucratic tasks and form-filling not directly related to their core purpose as a source of futility and pointlessness.
4 Treat people unfairly
If people feel that they can’t trust their leaders to be fair, open and equitable, then they are unlikely to find much meaning in their work. Forms of unfairness ranged from distributive injustices to freelance musicians being asked to write a film score without payment.
5 Disempower people
Quite often a sense of meaninglessness was connected with a feeling of disempowerment, or overriding people’s better judgment over how work was done. Lawyers talked about being forced to cut corners to finish cases quickly.
6 Isolate people
Feelings of isolation or disconnecting people from supportive relationships at work were linked with meaninglessness. This could occur through deliberate ostracism on the part of managers, or just through feeling disconnected from co-workers and teams. Entrepreneurs talked about their sense of loneliness and meaninglessness during the startup phase of their business, and the growing sense of meaningfulness that arose as the business developed and involved more people with whom they could share the successes.
7 Put people at risk
Unnecessary exposure to risk of physical or emotional harm was associated with lost meaningfulness. For example, nurses cited feelings of vulnerability when left alone with aggressive patients.
These seven destroyers emerged as highly damaging to an individual’s sense of their work as meaningful. When several of these factors were present, meaningfulness was considerably lower.
For those who are involved in managing teams or implementing digital transformation initiatives, then understanding which features makes work meaningful for people is important.
In my article, The Campaign for Meaningful Work, I shared some thoughts on the “why of work” and the flaws with our past initiatives around improving employee engagement. One impact of this, is that of ‘displacement’. In HR, we could have spent the effort and energy (read blood, sweat and tears) on finding out what really does drive employee wellbeing and productivity in our organisations.
As an optimist, I believe organisations have the opportunity to solve current organisational issues if it brings in evidence-based approaches and capitalises on the employee/organisational data it has. With well-designed and funded research programmes carried out by academics and practitioners we have a better chance of creating jobs that provide meaningful work.
What Makes Work Meaningful — Or Meaningless Bailey, C. & Madden, A. 2016 ‘What makes Work Meaningful — or Meaningless’. MIT Sloan Management Review, 57(4): 53–61
(This was a guest post for HRN Blog)