What makes work meaningful - or meaningless?

Catherine Bailey, Adrian Madden

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

138 Citations (Scopus)

Abstract

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. 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. Meaningful work can be highly motivational, leading to improved performance, commitment, and satisfaction. 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. 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, textquotedblleftWhat's the point of doing this job?textquotedblright 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; 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. 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.
Original languageUndefined/Unknown
JournalMIT SLOAN MANAGEMENT REVIEW
Volume57
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jun 2016

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