You can’t do much as a leader to make work meaningful for others in your organization. But your actions sure as heck can lead others to experience work as meaningless.
That’s one of the unexpected research findings reported by two British academics in the Summer 2016 issue of MIT Sloan Management Review (register to access). Catherine Bailey and Adrian Madden interviewed 135 people in 10 distinct occupations to ascertain how people find their work meaningful and what role leaders play in this process.
The article is on the long side, but I strongly recommend it. The authors describe the five qualities of meaningful work, the “Seven Deadly Sins” that destroy meaningfulness and the elements of a “Meaningfulness Ecosystem.” All smart stuff.
What is meaningful work?
As someone who coaches executives and consults with organizations around questions of purpose, I liked their description of meaningful work: meaning arises, Bailey and Madden say, “when an individual perceives an authentic connection between work and a broader transcendent life purpose beyond the self.”
The following quote encapsulates the outcomes of their research:
"Whereas our interviewees tended to find meaningfulness for themselves rather than it being mandated by their managers, we discovered that if employers want to destroy that sense of meaningfulness, that was far more easily achieved. The feeling of ‘Why am I bothering to do this?’ strikes people the instant a meaningless moment arises, and it strikes people hard. If meaningfulness is a delicate flower that requires careful nurturing, think of someone trampling over that flower in a pair of steel-toed boots."
You're the leader – are you feeling it?
My takeaway as a coach and consultant is this: If you own a business that employs others or are in a leadership position in any organization, start by checking in with yourself before you put your organization under the microscope. If you personally are experiencing work as meaningless, chances are those you employ or lead will, too.
Each of us – executives and those we lead – experiences meaningfulness as “intensely personal and individual.” As an executive, you want to establish an environment in which others can consistently connect their work to a larger sense of purpose. Seems to me, you’ll have more success if you first take care of your own need for work that matters.
Until you're feeling it, you’ll be doing your organization and those around you no favors. If and when you do, I encourage you to leverage the excellent insights and organizational tools the authors offer.