Define ‘meaningful’

Coert Visser, September 7, 2013

In 5 steps to harness the progress principle I mentioned the research finding that progress in meaningful work is extremely motivating. In other words, the more you think that your work contributes to what is valuable to you, the more motivating it will be for you to achieve progress in this work. To speak of meaningful work, means to go beyond a simple task or results focus. To do meaningful work means that, as an employee, you have the feeling that completing the task or achieving the results is linked to an underlying purpose that is valuable to you. Here is an example.

Two counselors, who work at different institutions, are asked to see more clients per day. One of them, Lizzy, feels demotivated by this task. The other, Anne, feels motivated by it. Lizzy has been told by her supervisor that she will need to work more efficiently in order to cut costs. Her interpretation of what is happening in the organization is that there is an increasing emphasis on money at the expense of client needs. She is troubled by this because she chose this line of work so that she could help people not to be part of a ‘money-driven culture’. The other counselor, Anne, actually agrees that she will see more clients. Her organization has invested in implementing a new way of working which makes it possible to help clients better and faster. She herself participated in a project group which prepared the introduction of this new way of working. She is exited about this approach because she has seen that clients benefit from it. Her interpretation of what is happening in her organization is that the organization is becoming more focused on client needs. More than ever, she feels that she has chosen the right job.

For the motivation of people it is not enough that they know what is expected of them. It is essential that they also know to what end that is expected of them. By knowing to what valuable thing work contributes, it becomes meaningful. As a manager, you may have a relatively large impact on the extent to which employees perceive their work as meaningful. First, you may influence their perception of meaningfulness by the way through which you explain why you ask what you ask of them. What is your reason for asking them to do something different? How will this lead to an improvement? What is this improvement? To whom is it an improvement? How will customers, students, clients, etc. benefit?

Second, you can promote the extent to which employees see their work as meaningful by discussing it with them and by encouraging them to discuss in with each other. Here are a few examples of types of questions that might be of help when doing this: What do you see as the main purpose of our organization? What do you think is the essence of what we are trying to do? Why does our organization primarily exist? Who are we trying to help? What difference does that make? What are you trying to contribute through your work? What is important to you in your job? What motivates you the most to do your job well? What opportunities do you see to service our clients better?

Question: I’m curious what kinds of things are meaningful to people in their work. What aspects of your work are most meaningful to you?