LA 082: How to Make Your Work Meaningful or Meaningless?
Even in the direst circumstances, people seek out their purpose in life: Viktor Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning 1
Human beings have a deep, innate desire to find meaning in their lives. We want to matter. For some, it is to leave a legacy, to put a ding in the universe, or to enjoy the satisfaction of a job well done. For others, it is about success, reputation or recognition. For many who have found their true meaning, they know it's about others and less about self. And yet for many many more, it is an unknown, idealised and unrealistic dream.
Researchers have shown that meaningfulness is more important to employees than pay and rewards, promotions or even working conditions. 2
Work that is meaningful can be highly motivational, performance enhancing, satisfying and leads to greater commitment. 3
Yet, recently I was running a workshop with a group of millennials and I was unsurprised that not one of them had a clear purpose for their life, not even a career plan or really a semblance of any idea what they wanted let alone why they might have been put on this earth.
My surprise was that this time, not one of them has put thought into it. Usually, one or two will tentatively raise their hands that they have some sort of idea or plan for their own future. And yet we hear so many stories that Millennials seek more from jobs than a salary. They are , apparently, greatly concerned about environmental issues, climate change, social injustice. And they want to be engaged at work- yet less than 30% are. And they seek personal life balance int heir work. So not so very different from Gen X'ers, Baby Boomers and Founding fathers.
I was given some pretty poor advice when I was young to pursue my passion in life. "Do what you love and you won't work another day in your life."
Which is all well and good until you change your mind about what you are passionate about. Passion is self-serving, egotistical and selfish. It's for you alone. And it changes. For some people it changes over years, for others it changes in minutes.
Most often, your passion tends to be associated with something you are good at doing. You love doing this. You enjoy it. I've met many an accountant who went into it in part due to parental expectations and bias, in other part that they were good at maths and liked earning and counting money. A few years later, the glisten of accounting can wear off and the feeling of something missing looms larger and larger.
The dictionary can help us out here:
Passion: a strong or powerful emotion
This is not the same as being engaged with work:
Engaged: to occupy the attention or efforts of (a person or persons):
Though you could argue that your attention would be occupied by doing something that you are passionate about.
Passion is good to put fire in your belly but as Ryan Holiday points out in his book, “Ego is the Enemy, ”Passion is for the amateurs" he says, and continues with, “passion is seen in those who can tell you in great detail who they intend to become and what their success will be like.” Though they haven’t gotten there, and might not even be on the right track. Ouch!
If passion is the fire, then purpose is the fuel. It is "Why" you do what you do. It's "Why" you were born, "Why" you have the gifts and talents you have.
Purpose: The object toward which one strives or for which something exists; an aim or goal: the reason for which something is done or created or for which something exists
As you search to make your work meaningful, it aligns with your purpose (and if you are truly blessed, aligns with your passion as well.) Research at MITSloan Management Review found five qualities of Meaningful work:
- Self-transcendent (it's not about you!) - your work aligns with your purpose or even is your purpose.
- We find meaning in work when our work matters more to others than to just ourselves. Abraham Maslow's original hierarchy had "Self-transcendence" at the apex
- Poignant (meaning doesn't always come wrapped in euphoria) i.e. it's not passion!
- People often find their work to be full of meaning at moments associated with mixed, uncomfortable or even painful thoughts and feelings. It's not just when they feel happy or full of joy, but often the poignant moments of deep sadness, incredible challenge and yet having achieved something special, and usually, for others.
- Episodic (not sustained)
- Meaningfulness at work is not consistent or sustained every day. It is those moments that remind us that the work we do has purpose, matters to someone else and has an impact. We accept that there are hours, days, weeks and maybe months of what can feel like drudgery, but in the end, oh in the end we get a glimpse of the joy on someone's face or see the finished work. For me, those reminds are what i call the "a-ha moments" I see or hear in a clients voice as they get it for themselves.
- Meaningfulness comes to life when we reflect on it, discuss it, share with our conscious selves or others. Sure, there are feelings in the moment but meaningfulness comes to mind when we step back and reflect on the work done andd see the purpose fulfilled.
- Personal (work and life integration)
- Meaningful work is not just about work but also in the wider context of personal life experiences. It is especially powerful when meaningful work is seen by others who matter and recognised for the amazing work it is.
Meaningless work is much much easier to attain:
Here are seven ways that you can effectively make anyone's work meaningless or futile:
- Disconnect people from their values: Most easily achieved through an organisational focus on the bottom line and the individual's focus on professionalism and quality of work. Essentially, holding profit as more important over people and service.
- Take your employees for granted: Don't recognise or acknowledge someones hard work and don't appreciate staff for, well, anything.
- Give people pointless work to do: Please do fill as much time as possible with bureaucratic, administrative tasks. Especially those not directly related to their core purpose and lots of copy and paste of numbers into multitudinous reports and slides - focusing as much as possible on reports that don;t matter and don;t get read or acted upon.
- Treat people unfairly: Hype up the meritocracy you believe in and then make sure you give the best perks to relatives, friends, and those noticeably less qualified. Pay more to some people you like, and less to others. Or generally be unpleasant, lie and remove perks randomly.
- Override people's better judgment: If someone has a good idea, ignore it. If someone has years of experience and questions a procedure, be sure to enforce them to do it your way, or else. Increase a sense of urgency at all times and encourage corner-cutting. People love it when their opinions and experience don't count.
- Disconnect people from supportive relationships: Isolate people when possible and discourage sharing, camaraderie or any relationships. Marginalise or deliberately ostracise individuals when possible.
- Put people at risk of physical or emotional harm: Many jobs entail physical or emotional risks and those who do them accept those risks. Unnecessary exposure to risks though can make staff feel vulnerable, exposed or terrified. The growing requirement for physical Safety and Health at Work has reduced this somewhat in recent years, so managers can turn to the more subtle emotional harm through bullying for example.
Doing the opposite of these in your organisation or team doesn't in itself provide meaningful work (though this could be your own purpose?). But avoiding them will protect others from losing meaning in their work which for many, would be an incredible first step.
So, how do you find meaningful work?
I, like many others, have written extensively on finding your purpose or your meaning, or as Simon Sinek puts it: "Finding Your Why" and much of it is very good stuff. But it takes so very long.
Over the years I have found that it's better to be as simple as possible. Firstly remember the five qualities of meaningful work:
- It's not about you
- It's poignant (it may not be wrapped in euphoria)
- It will be episodic - there will be moments that remind you of your purpose and make you feel good about it.
- Meaning comes through reflection on your activities, and it will be
- Personal - it will be something that integrates your life and work.
The first key to finding meaningful work is finding, or clarifying your purpose.
Your purpose is a beautiful combination. It's the thing that you are designed and gifted and experienced to do so that someone else gets something that helps them.
That is, you have gifts, talents and experience that mean that you are equipped to solve some problem for someone. You have a SOLUTION to some PROBLEM for a TARGET.
It could be a huge purpose. Maybe you are here to solve the global warming problem. It could be more local and you are here to help build a bookshelf for your neighbour. Or maybe you are here to cure cancer. Or maybe you are here to visit cancer patients in hospital and tell them some jokes.
I find that most of my clients discover their "problem" is something that really bugs and annoys them. I mean, majorly so. If there's a pet topic that riles you up and makes you say "someone should do something about this". That someone could be you.
- Now are you equipped, experienced or skilled to so anything about that problem?
- Who does it help?
Now just try that on for size: I could [ use these skills/experience/gifts of... ] to help fix PROBLEM for TARGET.
Play with it. Talk to people who know you well about it. Discuss and share your thinking with a coach or mentor. Refine it, change it. add to it, subtract from it until you have a simple statement along these lines: I [do this solution]... so that [problem is fixed]... for [this target].
I hack the art and neuroscience of expert leadership so that you UnStuck Your True Potential in Life and Work.
Yes I cheated, I put solution-target-problem - you can too :-)
That's it. You have the gifts and talents that equip you to solve something that really matters to you for others who matter to you.
Make a list if it helps you, of those things that annoy and anger you in this world. Think on who suffers because of this and do you genuinely care about them?
Make a list of your gifts and talents. To help you here, consider tasks or activities that you do easily AND that you enjoy.
1.V.E. Frankl, “Man’s Search For Meaning” (Boston: Beacon Press, 1959).
2.W.F. Cascio, “Changes in Workers, Work, and Organizations,” vol. 12, chap. 16 in “Handbook of Psychology,” ed. W. Borman, R. Klimoski, and D. Ilgen (New York: Wiley, 2003).
3. M.G. Pratt and B.E. Ashforth, “Fostering Meaningfulness in Working and at Work,” in “Positive Organizational Scholarship,” ed. K.S. Cameron, J.E. Dutton, and R.E. Quinn (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2003).