Meaningfulness, pt 3: Why Meaning Is More Basic Than Purpose

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Today we return to the topic of meaningfulness; this enigmatic term that has become such a buzzword in today’s management discourse: As we often hear, “today’s young talents want work to be meaningful“. So far in this blog series, we have hopefully established that finding meaning in work is a fundamental human need, and not something that came along with the Millennials. We have also established that having a higher purpose with one’s work is one contributor to the sense of meaningfulness. It is, however, not the only one, and arguably not the most basic one. In fact, I would argue that, in the choice between two evils, it is actually more detrimental to your well-being to find work meaningless than purposeless. In order to show what I mean, we are therefore going to look at what might be the most fundamental factor in meaningfulness: The sense that one’s work makes a valuable contribution to the bigger picture.

We all want to feel like our work matters. But before we ask how it matters to saving the world, we ask how it matters to our more immediate work environment, and our organization. If I fill out yet another Excel sheet, will it be put to use somewhere? If I spend another half day writing a report, will it actually be read by someone? When people find that the answer to such questions is “no”, consequences are grim. Research has consistently shown that feeling like a cog in the wheel, whose work efforts go into a black hole, is related to burnout and strain (e.g., Demerouti et al., 2001; Timms, Graham, & Cottrell, 2007). Further, several scholars have pointed out that the sense that one’s work matters in the organization is a necessary condition for engagement (Chalofsky, 2010; Fairlie, 2011). Naturally, employees are very unlikely to engage in a task where they suspect their efforts will just go to waste (Shuck & Rose, 2013).

Here is a bold claim: The sense that one’s work matters to the employer is more basic than having a higher purpose. Imagine, for instance, that you are working for an NGO devoted to children’s education in developing countries. The higher purpose is there, to be sure. For the sake of the argument, let us also assume that you have a good salary and a nice physical work environment. However, your boss consistently charges you with tasks that you do not see the point in doing. Furthermore, the well-researched analyses that you produce seem to go unnoticed and inpire no further action by the organization. Pretty soon, you will start asking yourself: “Is this really meaningful?” In fact, research indicates that this scenario is a lot more harmful to your well-being than the reversed case, since it so clearly takes away from your everyday work enjoyment.

So, seeing how your work fits into the larger scheme of things – that your contribution matters – is a fundamental key to meaningfulness. The next question is: has the need for this “bigger picture” perspective increased recently? Looking at the research, the answer seems to be: No, but the propensity to actively ask for it probably has. As usual, it makes more sense to look at long-term trends than the latest buzz. Ever since the end of World War II, belief in authority has been on the fall in the Western world (Cogin, 2012). With rising education levels and a less hierarchical society, we get more inclined to asking “why”. Compared to the world of work of the 1950s, very few professionals would today be satisfied performing work tasks “because the boss said so”. Today, most of us are not afraid to pin our managers down to ask them what our work is for; what it leads to. Various consultants may claim that this is a characteristic of the Millennials, but in reality it is a characterstic of our time. Hence, it is affecting employees of all ages – and all organizations must accordingly make sure they let their members understand how their work contributes to the larger mission. That is the very hygiene factor of meaningfulness at work.



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