Meaningful work : The WHAT, HOW & WHY

The search for what makes life meaningful must have started when humans first set their eyes on the stars.  In our previous blog we suggested that meaning is the ‘why’ of all human endeavour. It is the process we follow to rationalise our own existence. It is the link between our reality and dreams.

Over the past 30 years research on meaning in life has consistently shown one thing; that work, purpose and sense of achievement are the main drivers of meaning in our lives.  In our lives we spend over 30% of our time at work and with wages stagnating employees are increasingly looking for meaning in work.  If work lacks meaning it is difficult to retain talent.  Employees realise they are missing a huge opportunity to flourish and answer that question  ‘Why am I here?’

WHAT do we mean by meaningful work?

In the early 1900’s, psychologists challenged the then underlying principle that humans are self-interested and simply respond to pleasure and pain.  Maslow had a list of 125 of them!  Much like Aristotle, this new Humanistic movement argued that humans created meaning through a need to grow and flourish.  However, they also felt that because humans are all unique their perceptions of meaning could never be quantified.  Maybe this is why meaning was empirically ignored by social scientists until the positive psychology movement was created by Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi in 2000.  Positive psychology understood the link between happiness, well-being and meaning.  Some  go further and suggest that meaning is of a higher order than well-being because it only comes when we pursue meaning and authenticity.  But it is a complex causality – maybe it is only through happiness we see meaning?

In addition to the causality question there is also a distinction between ‘meaning in life’ and ‘meaning of life’.

‘Meaning in life/work’  is a question of ‘WHAT is going on now’.  It relates to our current reality – what should I be doing now to make my life meaningful?  This is called situational meaning.  In work, this is how motivated are we to meet our current goals and do we understand how they are are aligned to the overall mission of our organisation.

‘Meaning of life/work’ is a question of ‘WHY it should be so’.  It relates to the future – what should I become to make my life meaningful.  This is called global meaning.  In work this would relate to whether our organisation’s vision and values align to our own beliefs and values in life.

In essence meaning is a sense making process ; an ongoing alignment between our current experiences and our future expectations. In work, this boils down to a question of return on investment – how much of my physical, emotional, relational and cognitive self do I put into my work?  It is not a question of ‘what-is-in-it-for-me’ but whether my efforts will be valued and make a difference.  Why would an employee put effort into something they are doing now (operational reality) if they cannot see how it connects to where the organisation says it wants to go in the future (the organisation’s mission)?  So meaning is a mechanism that bridges reality and dreams.   If there is a lack of alignment then employees may experience a ‘meaning violation’ or incongruence which can disengage and demotivate.

HOW do we create meaningful work?

Initial research in the late 80’s concluded that experience of meaning is made from 3 components; cognitive (head), emotional (heart) and behavioural (hands).  Interestingly this is the same definition that is currently given to employee engagement.  Over the next 20 years different theories of meaning emerged which broadly map to:

  • Being At Your Best.  Meaning is how an individual sees themselves.  A self-perception based on thoughts, emotions, memories and mind-set.  Authenticity is often mentioned as a specific leadership style but the importance of ‘being the author of your life’ applies to employees too. Studies show that employees whose work is consistent with their own beliefs and values have a stronger sense of meaningful work .  So meaningful work is when work has personal significance and employee’s feel cognitively absorbed and a sense of flow.  In our Meaningful Work Matrix I have labelled this sense of cognitive availability as ‘HEAD’.
  • Doing Your Best.  Meaning is how an individual is seen by others.   This could be their behaviour, competencies, or language.  Employees feel a sense of meaning when colleagues see them as they see themselves.  Employees will ‘unleash their potential’ when they feel their skill-set closely matches their work . Also goals give meaning to people’s lives because they help to bridge the gap between current reality and future expectations.  Goal pursuit has been shown to increase well-being and performance.  Equally, incongruence or ambiguity of goals can create  anxiety and stress.  In our Meaningful Work Matrix I have labelled this expression of self-efficacy  as ‘HAND’.
  • Doing for Others.  Meaning is expressed through an organisation’s systems and processes to pursue their mission. These mission- driven organisations enjoy employee loyalty, higher customer engagement and better goal alignment.  When that purpose contributes to a positive impact on society (e.g. working for something socially worthwhile) we achieve even higher levels of meaning.  Maybe this explains the increasing interest in using Corporate Social Responsibility as a mechanism to engage and attract talent .  Also when employees find positive meaning  in their work  it allows them to bounce back when faced with adversity .  As Nietzsche said  “If we have our own why in life, we shall get along with almost any how.”  (Nietzsche, 1888).  In our Meaningful Work Matrix I have labelled these organisational systems & processes as ‘HABITS’.
  • Being with Others. Meaning becomes a validation process .  When  values and beliefs are shared we feel a sense of belonging and connectedness – there is a collective consciousness.  This creates a feeling of transcendence as employees realise that being a team player is more fulfilling than being just an individual. Employees validate each other’s values and beliefs creating ‘norms’ of expected behaviour that create a strong organisational culture . Beyond the monetary need, work satisfies the need for human relatedness  creating organisational attachment and loyalty.  In our Meaningful Work Matrix I have labelled this sense of connection as ‘HEARTS’.

I have integrated these 4 perspectives into a Meaningful Work Matrix.

WHY is meaningful work important?

Apart from helping employees to, be the authors of  their own lives, unleash their potential, be a team player and give them a sense of purpose, meaning can also create:

Alignment.  Central to meaning is congruence or sense making.  Meaning offers a mechanism for humans to order and make sense of their experiences so they can understand how they can optimise their contribution to the world.  So meaning is an integrator and mediator.  It connects the outside world with the reality of organisational life.  This ‘outside-in’ approach is being used in developing HR strategy and also as an approach to define organisational culture. Where there is incongruence and a lack of authenticity we find toxic cultures.  This is because there is a gulf between external reality and business practices (organisational habits) or where the ‘tone from the top’ is out of sync with operational reality.   When a company’s purpose and employee values are aligned organisations become ‘infused with value’ which creates greater work cohesion.

Accountability.  Following on from congruence, meaning creates cultures of accountability.   Accountability reduces workplace politicking and increases organisational citizenship behaviour. Meaning balances our need to dream of a better future with our current reality.  Accountable employees can link current decisions to an organization’s mission.  They are willing to put their hands up and be counted because they know their efforts will make a positive difference to the business and their work colleagues .  High levels of accountability are also linked to proactive behaviour – if I have put up my hand  I have nothing to lose from anticipating, planning, and acting proactively.  Unlike empowerment, accountability is taken not given. Accountability must be self-determined.  After all, employees cannot be held accountable for something that has no meaning to them.

Motivation – As mentioned the search for meaning has to be a self-determined endeavour.  In my previous blog I argued that the ‘why’ of motivation lies in fulfilling three basic needs that result in self-determined behaviour : autonomy, competence and relatedness (belonging).  Autonomy gives meaning through a sense of free choice allowing employees to be proactive, competence gives meaning through a sense they can rise to the challenge and relatedness gives meaning through shared beliefs and values.  Research shows that tasks that have meaning for employees results in higher levels of performance.

Engagement and meaning are intertwined.  Engagement is a state of mind whereas meaning describes the significance of my work.  Meaning has been found to be a predictor of engagement  and meaningfulness mediates the relationship between job enrichment and engagement.  There is evidence that those who define their work as a ‘calling’ demonstrate higher levels of work satisfaction.  However, employees could get engaged with bureaucratic work that potentially undermines meaning in work.  Recent studies show that lack of meaning in work can explain absenteeism amongst employees. As mentioned, the definition of engagement and meaning are intertwined. They both relate to how employees expend their efforts cognitively, emotionally and behaviourally.

Well being – It isn’t uncertainty that causes stress but ambiguity, incoherence and incongruence.  Uncertainty is when two people can fail to agree on how to do something because they have different beliefs on how it should be done.  There is no objective answer. Ambiguity is when there are no clear beliefs on how we should get somewhere. Everything seems  to be ‘up for grabs’.  The frontal cortex part of the brain can handle the first scenario because it can make sense of the different beliefs.  However, with ambiguity and incoherence there is no point of reference and this triggers the amygdala which is associated with anxiety and stress.  Ambiguity makes it difficult to construct a mental model of our current or future state which results in meaninglessness .  Therefore, creating a meaningful workplace (i.e. minimising ambiguity and incoherence) can help reduce distress and burnout and improve wellbeing.  In addition to improved wellbeing, employees who view their work as a calling demonstrate increased citizenship behaviours in organisations and so are more likely to help others.


Research shows that work is one of the largest contributors to meaning in people’s lives.  We spend a significant amount of our life at work.  So aren’t organisations are under a moral obligation to help employees find meaning in their work?  This article outlines a structure to bridge the gap between the gravity of our day-to-day work and the dreams we have for our future.

One Reply to “Meaningful work : The WHAT, HOW & WHY”

  1. This is a very timely topic as many big corporations work to the bottom line as the priority with employee engagement being somewhere on the list. I have worked in several industries over the past three decades and agree 100% that being the author of your life and empowering your employees that same right gets results that surpass managing to numbers.

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