Can Every Job Be Meaningful?

With the labor pool as tight as it is across the country, there is a lot of talk about smart strategies to recruit and retain top talent. Good pay and benefits is a natural starting point; Recognition, flexible work schedules and opportunities for growth are other common denominators among companies that enjoy low turnover.

“Make work meaningful,” is advice that’s often tossed out as an effective means of attracting and keeping good workers. It’s great in theory, but extremely challenging in practice. In its 2016 “State of the American Workplace” report, Gallup states that 68 percent of workers in the U.S are disengaged.

The importance of creating meaningful work is indisputable. Gallup reports that companies with highly engaged workers outperform their peers by 147 percent in earnings per share.

What Makes Work Meaningful?

A Google search of the question above leads to articles such as “The 3 Things That Make Work Meaningful” and “5 Ways Great Leaders Make Work Meaningful for Employees.” These and similar articles are loaded with good advice, such as:

  • Focus on feedback.
  • Don’t just talk – listen.
  • Build autonomy into each worker’s day.

Interestingly, two United Kingdom educators and researchers recently surveyed 135 people who work in 10 distinctly different occupations, asking them to describe times they felt work was meaningful. Writing in MIT Sloan Management Review earlier this year, Catherine Bailey and Adrian Madden say they discovered the key question is not, “What makes work meaningful?” but rather, “Who makes work meaningful?”

The answer, say Bailey and Madden, often lies within. “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.” Instead, they found that “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.”

First, Do No Harm

While high-quality leadership was rarely mentioned by the survey respondents in connection with meaningful moments on the job, Bailey and Madden make it clear that poor management is the top destroyer of meaningfulness. That is to say, managers don’t play as much of a role as they may like in building employees’ pride in achievement, but they have tremendous power to tear down workers’ sense of meaning in the work they do and their goodwill toward a company.

“If meaningfulness is a delicate flower that requires careful nurturing, think of someone trampling over that flower in a pair of steel-toed boots,” the authors state. “Avoiding the destruction of meaning while nurturing an ecosystem generative of feelings of meaningfulness emerged as the key leadership challenge.”

The authors share seven deadly sins that leaders commit that result in workers feeling their role is meaningless. They are:

  • Disconnecting people from their values
  • Taking employees for granted
  • Giving people pointless work to do
  • Treating people unfairly
  • Overriding people’s better judgment
  • Disconnecting people from supportive relationships
  • Putting people at risk of physical or emotional harm

We will continue to examine these topics and much more in depth on this blog. For now, however, reading the full report from Bailey and Madden is a smart use of time, whether you manage others or not.