How to make work meaningful

Jul 27 2011 by Myra White Print This Article

There is a general feeling of wellbeing among CEO's and senior executives these days. Their salaries are soaring Ė CEO pay is even higher now than in 2007, when the economy was booming Ė corporations are awash with cash and the stock market is rising ever higher.

A different picture is emerging among the people at lower corporate levels who through their labor make these lofty salaries possible.

Levels of employee engagement are at an all-time low - the 2010 annual Conference Board survey found that 55% of U.S. employees are now dissatisfied with their jobs.

As the New York Time put it recently, "rarely has the view from the corner office seemed so at odds with the view from the street corner"

A recent column by Stefan Stern in the Independent newspaper reports similar grumblings in UK corporations. Frustration levels in senior managers have reached such a pitch that many contemplate chucking it all in despite their attractive salaries.

One of the problems here is that people crave meaningful work. When people are asked in surveys what they want most from their jobs, most people don't rank money first. They put meaningful and significant work first.

People want to feel valued and useful. They want to know that the 40-plus hours that they work and the sacrifices that they make for their jobs count.

Successful people know this. Warren Buffett and Bill Gates have never been driven by money. Bill Gates initially wanted to build a company bigger than his father's law firm. Warren Buffett considers his job analogous to painting the Sistine Chapel.

In the current environment, employees are having trouble finding their work meaningful because they are essentially modern-day serfs. A large part of the value that they create at work simply feeds the greed of the people at the top.

In the U.S. the standard of living for people in the middle and lower classes has dropped while people in the upper echelons have grown richer. In the UK a similar decline in the standard of living has been seen. In such an environment it is easy to understand why employees become frustrated and disillusioned with work.

To make matters worse employees are now often asked to do more work for the same pay or in some cases less pay. A common lament that one hears from employees is that when a fellow employee leaves, they are not replaced. Instead the employees that remain must add this person's work to their own.

Even if a person likes their job and feels that it has value, it is hard to find this meaning when a they are exhausted from working long hours and worried that they might be terminated and become a member of the chronically unemployed.

To put energy and a positive attitude back into the workplace, organizations need to start treating employees as the valuable assets that they are. Employees are no longer interchangeable commodities that can easily be plugged into jobs.

Most people in organizations are now knowledge workers who have undocumented information about how to do things in the organization. As a result, new employees rarely are able to be immediately productive. Typically there is an extended start-up period where they are a drain on resources rather than an asset.

There are also losses associated with the departure of employees that elude easy measurement. Many departing employees take valuable knowledge and experience about the organization which can take years to replace.

In addition, such employees often have informal relationships with other employees across departments and divisions that allow them to effectively deal with crises.

Organizations also need to think about how to make the actual jobs more meaningful. One way is to figure out how to chunk work into wholes versus the bits and pieces that computers have created.

The fragmentation of tasks in many jobs requires people to rapidly shift their attention between different and unrelated tasks. Our brains don't like this. It is sustained attention on one task that gives our brains pleasure and makes us feel like we are in charge of what we are doing. In contrast, this constant shifting of attention leaves employees feeling slightly unsettled and out of control.

Second, it is important to give people jobs that provide them with just enough challenge that it peaks their interest. Jobs that are too easy are boring and people find little meaning in doing something that uses half their brain.

On the other hand, a job that is too hard for someone will leave the person frustrated and discouraged. People don't do well on a diet of failure.

What is key is to have enough challenge to engage someone but not so much that they are overwhelmed. When this balance is achieved, people experience a feeling of mastery and pride in what they have done which is a key ingredient in generating the sense of meaning that most people crave in their jobs.

Finally, to really understand the frustration, anger and despair that is creeping into the lower levels of their organizations, CEO's and senior executives need to spend time as "mystery employees." As "mystery diners" do in reviewing restaurants, they should spend a few weeks each year unbeknownst to other employees in one of their organization's little cubicles doing one of the many meaningless jobs that they ask employees to do.

Who knows, if they did, things might start to change.

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About The Author

Myra White
Myra White

Myra White teaches managing workplace performance and organizational behavior at Harvard University and is a clinical instructor at Harvard Medical School. She is the author of "Follow the Yellow Brick Road: A Harvard Psychologist's Guide to Becoming a Superstar", a book based on her research into how over 60 well-known people became superstars.

Older Comments

Important post. I just wrote about the importance of meaningful work myself, saying:

Meaningful work and a sense of value within the organization are indeed powerful elements of employee engagement. All work is meaningful and valuable (otherwise, why would you be paying people to do it). The trick is for management to help employees see that meaningfulness and personal value, especially during this tough economy and often stressful workplace environment.

This reminds me of the time I visited an aged relative in hospital. My cousin questioned why I thanked the janitor as deeply as I did the doctor. In my eyes, the janitor keeps my relative’s hospital room as clean and germ free as possible, which is critical to her speedy recovery. How is that any less meaningful or worthy of appreciation than the efforts of the doctor?Any heroic efforts by the doctor to save my relative’s life would be wasted if she had caught an infection in a dirty recovery room.

The full post - including Harvard Business School research on the importance of meaningful work is available in my RecognizeThisBlog in the Aug 5 post.

Derek Irvine Globoforce

I'm an employee of a big company. I was hopeful when I saw the title of this piece ('How to make work meaningful') that there would be some advice for employees to use for initiating change within the companies they work for.

The piece is not a 'how-to,' but a lament.

You seem to be addressing no one in particular, but simply wishing that employers would see the light. How do envision that actually happening? Employers have no incentive to make their employees' work meaningful. What has to change to make that happen? How can employees get some leverage back and make employers change?

Rachel Boston