07 August 2016

LEADERSHIP - How to Make Work Meaningful...or Meaningless

You know meaningful work matters.

But recent research delves into what makes it meaningful and the role an employer plays on that front.

Surveying 135 people from priests to professors and garbage collectors and scouring literature on the topic, researchers found some interesting answers to what makes work meaningful or not.

Working with the definition of meaningful work as “when an individual perceives an authentic connection between work and a broader transcendent life purpose beyond the self,” researchers learned it is highly personal, according to highlights published in MIT Sloan Management Review.

But regardless of that, researchers did uncover some common contributing factors and regardless of the type of work being done, qualities promoting on-the-job meaningfulness boiled down to five factors.

First, people want work to be about more than just themselves and instead be “self-transcendent,” and having a positive impact on other people or broader issues.

Secondly, work must be “poignant” - it has to matter.

Researchers found meaningful work needn't always be linked to happy times can still be poignant even if associated with “mixed, uncomfortable or even painful thoughts and feelings.”

The urban animal industry is populated by people who work there largely because it matters - even though the work can be very emotionally challenging.

The third quality, “episodic,” speaks to the reality workers realize “a sense of meaningfulness” cannot be sustained on a constant, daily basis.

Instead, workers relished the reality work offered great moments from time to time which is sufficient in making work meaningful.

Living in the moment is great but workers found that “reflection” is required for work to be meaningful.

“Meaningfulness was rarely experienced in the moment, but rather in retrospect and on reflection when people were able to see their completed work and make connections between their achievements and a wider sense of life meaning,” researchers were quoted as saying in the MIT Sloan Management Review.

Lastly, workers found meaningful work relied on “personal” feelings and the “wider context of their personal life experiences.”

In addition, researchers looked at what employers can do to foster meaningfulness for workers.

The answer? Not a lot.

“We found managers and even organizations actually mattered relatively little,” researchers said.

While leadership was not a factor in making meaningful moments, poor management or bosses acting badly is a surefire way to destroy “the fragile sense of meaningfulness individuals find in their work.”

Researchers identified a list of top tools to nix meaningfulness for workers which included; disconnecting people from their values, taking employees for granted, giving them pointless work, treating them unfairly and overriding their better sense of judgement.

Researchers said “lack of recognition for hard work by organizational leaders was frequently cited as invoking a feeling of pointlessness.”

”When people felt they were not being listened to, that their opinions and experience did not count or that they could not have a voice, then they were more likely to find their work meaningless,” researchers found.

Also, disconnecting people from supportive relationships destroys a sense of crucial camaraderie while needlessly putting “people at risk of physical or emotional harm” is a good way to gut a sense of meaningfulness for workers.

“Nurses cited feelings of vulnerability when left alone with aggressive patients; garbage collectors talked of avoidable accidents they had experienced at work and soldiers described exposure to extreme weather conditions without the appropriate gear,” researchers said.

Ultimately the research – done by Catherine Bailey, a professor in the department of business and management at the University of Sussex and Adrian Madden, a senior lecturer in the department of human resources and organizational behaviour at the University of Greenwich - found “ meaningfulness is largely something individuals find for themselves in their work but meaninglessness is something organizations and leaders can actively cause.”

Given meaningfulness on the job is a top priority – more important to workers than any other aspect of work including, “pay and rewards, opportunities and promotion or working conditions” - employers would do well to try to foster it in the workplace.

By Nadia Moharib
Nadia is an animal lover who has adopted everything from birds to hamsters, salamanders, rabbits, fish and felines. She has written about all-things-pets for years and was a long-time editor of a pet magazine in a daily newspaper which featured a Q & A column, Ask Whit, penned by her pooch (ghost written, of course.) The serial dog owner lives in Calgary, Alberta and most days can be found at a dog park picking up after her rescue pooch, Scoots.

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