Meaningful Work Research : How to create meaningful work

Why is meaningful work important?

Meaningful work connects employees to everything.  It connects them to their own potential (Doing Your Best), to their organisation’s purpose (Doing For Others) to their colleagues (Being With Others) and themselves (Being Your Best).

Meaning is also the why of motivation and motivation is the why of behaviour.  So meaning is also the starting point to change ways of working in organisations.

If meaning is really the starting point for understanding all human endeavour, can it be the mediator and integrator of disparate theories in organisational behaviour such as motivation, alignment and engagement?

This research aims to find out…

What was the purpose of the research?

The purpose of the research is to ‘build-on’ and ‘bundle-up’ the disparate theories of motivation, alignment and engagement into the Lips-Wiersma & Wright’s Map of Meaning.  Their model was modified to align it to Ken Wilber’s model of how different schools of thought in psychology could be integrated into a single matrix.  The quadrants are ‘Being Your Best’, ‘Doing Your Best’, ‘Doing For Others’ and Being With Others’.  You can read more about the model here.

To validate the model the research tested the following three hypothesis:

  • Hypothesis 1 : All the quadrants are correlated with one another.
  • Hypothesis 2 : All the quadrants are correlated with meaning.
  • Hypothesis 3 : The concepts of meaningful work, motivation, engagement and business alignment, which underpin the quadrants, are positively correlated to one another.

How was the research conducted?

There are over 50 definitions of engagement,  20 theories of motivation and a similar number of perspectives/types of alignment .  So it is difficult trying to ‘bundle-up’ different theories into a questionnaire that will measure their relationship with meaningful work.  To achieve this, only tried and tested questionnaires (called scales in academia) were used.  Listed below is a list of the theories and questionnaires used in the research:

The 200 responses to the survey gave a statistically significant sample size.

What were the results?

Reliability analysis shows that the meaningful work, engagement, alignment and motivation scales are reliable as they have Cronbach alphas of 0.94, 0.94, 0.87 and 0.86 respectively.

Factor analysis showed that the constructs of autonomy, contributing to something beyond yourself, finding purpose in work and finding work inspirational explain the largest variations in motivation, alignment, meaning and engagement respectively.  Here are the results of the research…

  • Hypothesis 1. Overall there are ‘moderate’ to ‘weak’ (Evans, 1996) but significant correlations between all the quadrants.  The ‘moderate’ correlations are between Being Your Best and Doing Your Best and Being Your Best and Being for Others.
  • Hypothesis 2.  There is a ‘strong’ to ‘moderate’ significant relationship between meaningful work and all the quadrants.  Being Your Best has a ‘strong’ significant correlation with meaningful work.  All the other quadrants had a ‘moderate’ but significant correlation with meaningful work. 
  • Hypothesis 3. The analysis shows there is a ‘strong’ significant relationship between all of the concepts (motivation, engagement and business alignment) and meaningful work.  

What is the practical importance and implications of the research?

With stagnating wages, declining productivity, low employee engagement, job automation and socio-economic uncertainty (e.g. Brexit and the ‘gig economy’) meaningful or ‘good work’ has become a ‘national priority’ (MacLeod & Clarke, 2009; Taylor & others, 2017, CIPD 2018).

In addition reviews (Bevan et al 2018) and research (BIS 2012) suggest that closing the gap between evidence-based theories and management practices could have a positive impact on productivity by improving workforce engagement.

But practitioners have limited time to keep up-to-date with the latest evidence.   This adaptation of the Map of Meaning aims to create a ‘portal’ for practitioners.  This simple, integrated framework for meaningful work should help practitioners ‘bundle-up’ interventions to meet the needs to their organisation and hopefully increase the adoption of these evidence based psychological theories.

The research shows that:

  1. Alignment, engagement and motivation are nested within meaningful work.  Meaningful work could be a unifying theory that can be applied within organisations to help them understand the ‘complex interplay of factors contributing to the meaning employees make of their work’ (Rosso et al., 2010, p. 119).
  2. Use interventions holistically.  Organisations should consider how an intervention could impact on all three concepts (motivation, engagement or alignment) rather than just one.  For example, the strong correlation between, and causality from, ‘Being With Others’ to ‘Doing For Others’ suggests that creating a ‘collective consciousness’ (Pandey, 2008) is an important prerequisite to employees feeling their company purpose contributes to a positive impact on society  (Grant, 2008).  The Meaningful Work Matrix gives some insight into how this can be done.
  3. Avoid in-congurence by integrating people strategies with other business strategies.  Companies create in-congruence when their business plan states innovation as its long term priority but the people plan outlines a culture of ‘right first time’.  Equally an organisation going through an  IT transformation programme should link behavioural change requirements to the organisation’s competency framework.  Lack of alignment undermines an employee’s ‘meaning/sense-making’ process which this research suggests will also undermine motivation and engagement.

How do organisations make work meaningful?

The research suggest that organisations should focus on:

  1. Starting with ‘Being Your Best’– ‘Being Your Best’  seems to have the strongest correlation with meaningful work and moderate correlations with ‘Doing Your Best’ and ‘Being For Others’.  This suggests that if organisations want to create high performing teams and individuals they should focus on creating an atmosphere where employees can bring their ‘preferred self’ to work and feel competent. Simply put, make employees feel good about themselves.
  2. Creating an autonomy supportive work climate – Self Determination Theory suggest that autonomy is a basic human need.  Creating a climate of autonomy comes down to  the relationship between a manager and employee and the emphasis an organisation puts on compliance v competence.   A recent HBR article gives some interesting case studies on this .   You can read more here.
  3. Connect the WHY, HOW & WHAT – To experience meaning and purpose (WHY am I here) employees must be able to link the organisational culture (HOW they should be – vision, values and behaviours) with the external business environment  (WHAT needs to be done – mission and goals) .  This essential ‘sense-making’ allows employees to be more adaptive to change and is reliant on an organisation’s Employee Performance Management process working effectively. You can read more about this here.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *