At some point in all the stories I have heard from people who describe their memorable and positive experiences at work, those in which they had high job satisfaction, I hear words such as ‘passion,’ ‘committed,’ ‘drive,’ ‘I believed in what I was doing,’ or ‘it’s just what I do.’ They realize they derived great meaning from that work.
Having meaning in life is important to life satisfaction and subjective well-being.
What do we know about finding meaning at work?
This is the subject of a chapter in a newly published book, Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology and Work.
The chapter authors, Michael Steger and Bryan Dik, review relevant literature including the historical background, the factors which tend to contribute to meaning at work, and the known and proposed benefits of meaningful work. Below I present some of the highlights from the book chapter.Vocation comes from the Latin word vocare, meaning to call. In religious history there was a belief that people were called by God to engage in a religious vocation. A number of historical scholars noted that beyond a religious calling, anyone could be engaged in good work which served a greater purpose and a greater good. Work could be a call to love one’s neighbor through the duties that accompany their social place or station.
Steger and Dik note that there is a dignity that comes from work which is directly or indirectly a social service. They also comment that in modern days, the complexity and variety of work roles can sometimes lead to people becoming disconnected from their sense of service and meaning.
Referring to current research and thinking, calling often refers to how work contributes to one’s own sense of purpose and how it contributes to the greater good. “People have been summoned to meaningful, socially valued work by a transcendent call….the common core of these concepts includes both the sense that one’s work is meaningful and purposeful and that it serves a need beyond one’s self and one’s immediate concerns.”
The Components of Meaning
The authors suggest that meaningful work comes from:
- Comprehension – people develop a sense of identity which comes from knowing “who they are, how their world works and how they fit in with and related to the life around them.” Forming social connections with co-workers, understanding the organization, and understanding personal roles in society all add to comprehension.
- Purpose – “people’s identification of, and intention to pursue, particularly highly valued, over-arching life goals.”
Benefits of meaning
Steger and Dik suggest that engaging in meaningful work can result in enhanced:
- work performance, effort, efficiency
- understanding of the organization
- psychological and physical well-being
- satisfaction with work
- faith in management
- team functioning
- attitudes at work
- intrinsic motivation to work
- mentoring and motivational skills
- sense of self-transcendence
Implications and Suggestions for Leaders
Drawing from the commentary in the chapter, here are some suggestions for leaders and managers:
- Help people to understand how their roles are important in contributing to the purpose of the organization.
- Help people to see how their individual purposes can be achieved by contributing to the organization’s purpose, and thus they can use the organization as an instrument to find meaning at work.
- Ensure the organizational purpose is clearly connected to the greater good, and that organizational goals align with that purpose.
- Encourage social circles to thrive where workers see meaning as not just contributing to the work, but also to cultivating strong social connections
- Help workers to more deeply understand themselves and when they work at their best.
- Get to know employees and what drives their meaning and purpose; put them in places where these needs can be met.
“People and organisations prosper when they are engaged in meaningful work.”
Steger, M. F., & Dik, B. J. (2010). Work as meaning: Individual and organizational benefits of engaging in meaningful work. In P. A. Linley, S. Harrington, & N. Garcea (Eds.), Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology and Work. Oxford University Press.
Britton, K. (2008). Meaningful Work as Part of a Meaningful Life Positive Psychology News Daily.
Horne, A. (2009). Meaning and Work Make Australians Well. Positive Psychology News Daily.
Peterson, C., Park, N., & Seligman, M. E. (2005). Orientations to happiness and life satisfaction: The full life versus the empty life. Journal of Happiness Studies, 6, 25–41.
Vella-Brodrick, D. A., Park, N. A., & Peterson, C. (2008). Three ways to be happy: Pleasure, engagement and meaning – findings from Australian and US samples. Social Indicators Research, 90, 165-179.
Photos by Alice Tay and Amanda Horne
Amanda – Great summary! Should be required reading for every manager and leader at every level of an organization. Thanks for sharing this!
Amanda, thank you for shining the light on a topic that doesn’t always get much attention in the corporate world. To build upon your idea to: “Help workers to more deeply understand themselves and when they work at their best.” – strengths identification (be it the VIA Signature Strengths, Gallup’s StrengthsFinder, or some other instrument) gives employees a language to talk about when they work at their best. Also, asking employees to share their “most proud moment” in their career can also uncover what they find most meaningful or value.
Just last week I started an executive strategy session with this positive prompt. I paired people up and asked them to share their story. Then they each had to introduce their partner and relay their story (this encouraged people to get curious about each other and really listen). We then extracted the common themes that emerged from their 8 different stories. Very powerful discussion that then helped shape the strategy work. Again, many thanks!
I’m reading Tony Hsieh’s new book (CEO of Zappos) called Delivering Happiness. Zappos is an excellent model for creating meaning in the workplace and luckily for us, they are opening their doors to let the world see how they do it. I’ll be writing about it on PPND on June 8. Amanda, thanks for this wonderful summary.
This is a great read not just for managers (but especially for them), but for individuals. Often times we find ourselves unhappy and dissatisfied with our careers and we don’t know why we do the things we do. We are unmotivated and it affects our work. It’s important to know the why’s in our life.
For added reading on how to motivate employees.
Great post, Amanda! I think it is especially encouraging to know that people can find meaning in most any job. It depends on how you view your work. A great example is a janitor working in a hospital who views his work as a calling because his role of keeping the hospital free from germs is crucial for patients to heal. So leaders can make a big difference by influencing the way people view their work.
Thanks Doug and Beth, I thought the same when I read the article, that more business leaders and managers would find this information helpful.
Margaret, great point that strengths identification and knowing what one is proud of is a helpful pointer to what is also meaningful in one’s life. One story, so many messages! I agree with you the power of something so simple as sharing past positive stories.
Jeremy, we don’t hear much about Zappos here in Australia, and I’m looking forward to your article next month.
Megan, thanks so much for the link. Employees can play an important role in their motivation at work by being much more aware of their purpose and meaning, and standing up for this when applying for roles.