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.



Meaningfulness, pt 2: Higher Purpose: Buzzword or Basic Need?

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I hope you all had a meaningful week! If you did, it could be because you felt you were working for a higher good. Or, as we shall see, it could be for a number of other reasons. Today’s topic, in our quest to clarify the concept of meaningfulness, is higher purpose.

In popular reports, the terms meaningfulness and purpose tend to be used interchangeably. However, in order to gain some clarity, it is worthwhile distinguishing them. As I mentioned last time, meaningfulness is a much broader concept, defined in research as the amount of signficance that work creates for a person (Ashforth & Pratt, 2003). Meaningfulness is the general sense that work is worthwhile. Purpose is the more specific feeling that your work is gearing towards goals and values that go beyond yourself. Purpose, Rosso et al. (2010) point out, is actually only one of several different ways in which work can be made meaningful (others include self-efficacy, the sense of belonging, and authenticity).

Even though purpose is not the only way of deriving meaning from work, it is certainly a very good way. Thinkers from Dalai Lama to Viktor Frankl have emphasized the innate human need to work towards a purpose, and research has shown that employees who perceive that their work moves them closer to a larger goal perceive work as more meaningful (Bunderson & Thompson, 2009; Davidson & Caddell, 1994). When people feel that their work is contributing to society or one’s community, they derive more meaning from work (Grant, 2008; Wrzesnievski et al., 2003). This sense of meaningfulness, in turn, is quite strongly related to outcomes such as engagement, work adjustment, well-being, and (negatively) exhaustion (Fairlie, 2011).

So we have established that a higher purpose is a good thing. The next question is: Has this higher purpose become more important to employees? Popular discourse is certainly implying it. Millennials, we hear, constitute the most purpose-driven generation yet. They want their work to contribute to society. So what does research has to say on this issue?

First of all, there is very little evidence to suggest that Millennials would be more focused on higher purpose than their older colleagues. So-called altruistic motives – the desire to help others through one’s work – have remained stable for basically the entire post-war period (Cogin, 2012; Hansen & Leuty, 2012; Parry & Urwin, 2011; Wray-Lake et al., 2011). It is quite telling to look at the study of Twenge et al. (2010), for example. They reviewed high school seniors’ ratings of what matters in a job from 1976 through 2006. One of the items asked the seniors to rate the importance of having “a job that is worthwhile to society”. The importance placed on this did not change at all over this period (well, it marginally decreased if we are to be strict).

What has changed in recent years, however, is popular discourse around higher purpose. Not least, the tech- and startup world has fervently proclaimed the importance of higher purpose – even though it is sometimes less than clear what the purpose really is. The way we talk about things tends to create self-fulfilling prophecies, and this case is no exception. Therefore, it is not surprising that Kuron et al. (2015) found that the perception of a socially responsible culture was important in order to attract job candidates – especially those that were straight out of school – but less useful for retaining them. The cynical interpretation of that result is that “higher purpose” has become a marketing tool. The more optimistic one is that it has become a hygiene factor: To even be considered as an employer among young attractive talents, you may have to display what good you are doing for society.

In sum, it would appear that the quest for a higher purpose in work is eternal, rather than increasing. But then why is there such an intense discourse around higher purpose right now? And why does it seem as though it has gotten more important? One probable explanation is that within many knowledge-intensive settings, we have a buyer’s market at the moment. The right talent is in short supply, which means that people with the right education and skills can pick and choose among jobs. Faced with a selection of five attractive opportunities, what do you do? You move up the hierarchy of needs. You do not have to make your choice based on pay or location, so you can afford to make it based on a factor such as higher purpose. Case in point: In a large-scale study performed recently by companies LinkedIn and Imperative, Sweden with its buzzing economy came out as the number-one purpose-driven country. 53 percent of the respondents stated that they work for purpose rather than money or status.

To some extent, then, the discourse of higher purpose might be a product of talent shortage and economic boom. Today’s professionals probably have about the same drive for purpose as yesterday’s, but it becomes more visible because they can afford to focus on it. What happens at a future downturn is yet to be seen. What we can know for sure, however, is that purpose is indeed a powerful way of motivating people, at least when you are sure you can pay the groceries.




The Meaning of Meaningfulness

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Back on track after the summer, and what better way to start the fall than by going at one of the foremost buzzwords of current people management? I am talking about meaningfulness. Ask any employer branding firm or HR person charged with talent attraction, and they will tell you that today’s talents are increasingly demanding meaning, and its cousin purpose, from their work. For instance, Swedish employer branding firm Universum proclaimed last year; “students demand a higher purpose”. Young talents today, their report stated, crave the ability to make a difference, both at work and in society. Pwc, in their Millennials at work report 2016, concluded that “millennials want their work to have purpose” – 73 percent agreed that one of their main drivers at work would be making an impact on society. Outlets such as Forbes, HBR, and Huffington Post have all repeatedly announced that any organization that wants to lure the picky Millennials will have to meet their request for meaningful work.

The hype is there, to be sure. But what is meaningfulness, really? Are we looking at a generation of benefactors who want to save the world during work hours? Or is it self-actualization and personal development that people are after? What is – pun intended – the meaning of meaningfulness? And what can organizations do to promote it? That is what we will spend the next few blog posts delving into.

As usual, in order to get behind the surface, we need to gear for a clear definition.  Research on the concept of meaningfulness is quite scattered, which is no surprise – since the term is so blurry. If we start out with the term meaning, it philosophers have, ever since the time of Aristotle, noted that this constitutes a basic human need. We want to feel like we are living for something. Thinkers such as Maslow (e.g. 1965) and Alderfer (1972) introduced the concept of meaning into the realm of work, arguing that the sense of meaningfulness was related to self-actualization.

Since then, a number of attempts have been made at jotting down what meaningfulness at work really entails. Most scholars have concluded that it is a rather broad state. It entails the sense that work is worthwhile, and that you as a person are feeling valuable, useful, and resourceful in your role (Fairlie, 2011Kahn, 1990). Purpose in this context is a narrower concept, usually defined as a sense of direction and intentionality (Ryff, 1989). Purpose, researchers argue, is one of several mechanisms (along with e.g. self-efficacy, authenticity, and belonging) through which the broader state of meaningfulness is achieved (Hansson, 2010; Rosso et al., 2010).

My hunch is thus that the term meaningfulness, as it is used today, tends to conflate several different aspects – each of which I intend to look closer at in this blog series:

  1. The (perhaps increasing) desire for work and one’s employer to have a higher purpose; an idea about a larger goal that will benefit society and/or other humans in one way or another,
  2. The (perhaps increasing) need for one’s job role and work tasks to be related clearly to the bigger picture; the overarching goal of the organization – the contrary of feeling like a cog in the wheel, and
  3. The (perhaps increasing) willingness for work to lead to self-actualization by means of being interesting, challenging, and stimulating.

The repeated “perhaps increasing” parenthesis above might be annoying, but it is there for a reason: With all these three topics, there are some aspects that really are eternal – but also some aspects that seem to be gaining in importance, or take new shape. We will start digging into the first one – higher purpose – in the next blog post. Let the meaningful season begin!