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What is meaningful work?

on Monday, 05 August 2013. Posted in Satisfaction At Work

Meaningful Work sized

Do you want meaningful work? Do you want to provide meaningful work in your workplace? Associate Professor Marjolien Lips-Wiersma has conducted extensive research on what makes work meaningful.

This research has resulted in 'The Map of Meaning', which has four interesting components: 1. unity with others, 2. service to others, 3. expressing full potential, 4. developing the inner self. Marjolein was recently interviewed on Radio New Zealand National (24 March, 2013) about her map of meaning and we have included the interview text below.

The Interview

4 components of meaningful work

Interviewer: What is meaningful work? How do you define it? How do you provide for it? I asked Associate Professor Marjolein Lips-Wiersma from the department of management at the University of Canterbury.

I think work meaningful work is work where people can make a connection between the work that they’re doing and what they find is worthwhile, purposeful, may create a fulfilling life.

There are times aren’t there when in extreme circumstance, its pretty obvious that work is meaningful. I mean if you look at the Christchurch earthquake and the immediate aftermath, there was understandable that all the work that so many people put in, was very meaningful. But when it becomes more mundane, how does that decision actually get made?

I don’t know if people make so much a conscious decision … but rather it is the feelings that people have, the energy, you know they feel their energy waxing and waning over a course of a day of work, where they are feeling engaged and where they are feeling disengage, where they feel energized and not energized. We have indicators of where work is meaningful and where it isn’t meaningful. But over all the research that I have done is effectively on what makes makes work meaningful to people. And as you say sometimes you get an instance sense of feed-back on that. Say from other people and a classic example is as you already referred to was the Christchurch road workers who were already out there day and night effectively making sure we get to the places where we needed to be again. And people just coming up to them and saying thank you so much because you’re helping me to get my kid my school in time. You know to just get back into the daily routine of life. Sometimes it is about getting some feed-back and it’s quite interesting. For instance, that I did some research on people who were making quite advanced technological equipment for children who had cancer and even there they sometimes got really lost in the technical issues around it and forgot what they were doing it for. So, you know if we get into what is it, one of the things we have is the need, we all have a need to make a difference and we want to be useful in our work and that’s quite useful to understand if you think about the opposite. If you came home from a day of work and your partner asked you how has it been? And you said well, ‘it felt like I was useless today at work, you know nothing I did was of any use’. Then often when we look at the opposite of it, and of course we say that in many ways, we say ‘oh it wasn’t so good, it was frustrating’, but often what we’re really saying is ‘I didn’t make a difference’, ‘I wasn’t useful’. Whereas in those crisis situations you get instant feedback and I think that’s what you’re referring to as to how useful you are. Whereas in some of those other situations, even though you know that you’re doing useful work, as in that you’re creating equipment that helps kids with cancer, you sometimes get so preoccupied in either the managerial side of things, the paperwork or the technical side of things, that you may forget what you’re doing it for in the first place.

The secret is to have a clear impression in your mind as to the why rather than the what or the how? Right?

That’s right, that’s right. And the secret to that is more or less that on the one hand we know it. It’s intrinsic to being human, you know, if you ask anybody as a human being, more like a USB stick that you slot into a computer in the morning and you take out at the end of the day and the essence of the human being has not been effected by being stuck into that particular slot. People who say no, that’s not what’s it’s like. I go to work and some of the essential substance of who I am also gets effected by my work. But then but if you ask well what is that exactly, its often an emotion that people come up with. Well ‘you know I had a good feeling, a feeling of frustration’ and that’s when its important to keep asking OK where did that come from, what was that really about and how do we map what human beings really long for at work, which is meaningful work, making work more purposeful, more worthwhile. Yes, so that is what we have been working on, of creating a map and actually we haven’t really been working on creating the map, I just ask people, you know what is meaningful about your work and where do you lose meaning and they identified all similar ideas about what was and wasn’t meaningful and then when I wrote those up and showed them back to them they said hey they actually relate to each other and you could draw up a map for that. Then I would kind of go well what does that do?

And that was the beginning of the map of meaning?

And that was the beginning of the map of meaning

Yes it’s become a kind of world feature in many respects. It has two basic dimensions right? Relating and presence. Tell us about how the various aspects fit together?

If you stick a microphone in front of people and just ask them what is the meaning of your work, most people just glaze over and can’t really answer that question. And yet it seems very important to us because we keep talking about how often our pointers work. And so I decided rather than stick microphones in front of people and ask them well what is the meaning of work to say to them tell me the story of your working life over the last ten, fifteen years, what did you do? Where did you decide to work somewhere else? And just tell me the story, what was it like? And then I captured those stories, summarized it into three to four pages and then with the person sitting next to me and these were, you know, packers in supermarkets and well as CEO of corporations as well as people who help serve us in education, people working for the insurance industry, the pharmaceutical industry, so a very broad, and the meat works, broad mixture of people and just said, OK, so where was your working life meaningful and where did it lose meaning? And that’s where people kept coming up with the same themes. And so the themes are essentially unity with others, which some would refer to as you know, I need high quality relationships in my work and others would just refer to as you know I want to spend times with my mates at work. So people would use different words but unity with others was one strong theme and that was you know the relationship that you just referred to.


Another was service to others, the one we already talked about where people said that they need to know that their work makes a difference, that at the end of the day all these actions that I would have taken actually will contribute to something. You know because I want to be useful and another one was where people reflected on the experiences where they expressed a unique potential, where they expressed their talents. So they would reflect on the sense of accomplishment, the sense of achievement or a sense of, you know, somebody would say I just love making things. And then the final one that people reflected on but usually in a negative sense was there inner self, what was happening to their values. So, whether they were becoming more courageous in their work, whether they were becoming more compassionate in their work, whether they were becoming kinder through their work or wether in fact they didn’t really like who they were becoming and what they were like, you know towards their customers or their colleagues in the days of work. These themes, even though people used very different words for them, but these themes came back. And to me that was surprising in the sense that people often said that people often say but doesn’t that mean you are talking about different beliefs and doesn’t that mean that we all have different ideas about this. And you know that has become one of the reasons to not talk about deeper meanings in work. That we have focused so much on the diversity of being human. And we are very diverse and I am certainly interested in that type of research. But sometimes we also forget to look at the commonality of what we are as human beings and that we have these things in common. You can certainly have a difference between an introvert and an extrovert and an extrovert might need a few more interactions on a day to day basis. But even an introvert can talk just as much about a day where they had no meaningful connections. Where they felt lonely.

Did anyone have a satisfying work life without having a relatively fulfilled personal life?

If you do not have a fulfilling work life. For instance, if you are not able to make a difference in your work life and for instance if you have been very disempowered in your work life, this also effects other domains in your life. That you’re less likely to for instance engage in community activities. So we do know that particular relationship. And of course we also know that on the other hand people bring personal issues into work. I suppose your question is more, could be more, I’m not sure, is it around are their people who come in without needing meaning at all because that is also not a question that they ask in their personal lives?

Yeah, if you’re assessing the personal levels of fulfillment outside the workplace of any applicant, you’re more likely to get the best person for the job. But how often does that happen?

Often we have a very narrow CV. One of the exercises we do with people around the map of meaning is actually say well if you look at each of those areas and forget about boundaries between your working life and your non-working life, and you look at each of these areas, for instance expressing your full potential, how have you, where have you developed your talents, and let’s say people can look at community areas, at parenting areas, at things that they might have done in their religious communities, they might have done in sports coaching, all those sort of different areas, that all of the sudden not only does the employer get a much richer picture of these persons interest and capacities, but that they also do themselves. They’ve often split those off, you know all those different elements of themselves and they go WOW, I actually, you know am doing a lot in these areas. I know a lot about these areas. The concept of meaning and you know what is purposeful, what is worthwhile is a very holistic concept that you quite automatically once you go into it, role out what they do in paid work and what they do in all those other areas of their lives. You draw out a richer human being and that is helpful of course to the work-place.

I keep wondering whether employment agencies with these psychometric tests and what not are able to probe this whole question of meaningfulness of work. What’s your impression of that?

I do think we have a gap to fill across a lot of techniques that we use to manage organizations, so, indeed you know, application processes and recruitment processes is one of them. How do you tap into that spark that people might bring to their work. You know a performance review might be another area where you kind of go well yes how do you not get to a place where you just give a person a number or a letter and you so often have this thing. Well I just heard from a person and they said ‘I got a three out of four and so I asked the person why is it a 3 and not a 4’. And the feedback was, ‘well if I gave you a 4 I would be saying that you are perfect’. And you kind of go well OK, where’s the meaning in that process? You know? It’s something that people have a lot of sleepless nights before hand and afterwards they walk away from this dissatisfactory process. So that would be another process where could you bring meaning. Could you ask people, hey where did you actually connect with other people at your work? Where could you really express your unique talents in your work? Where did you feel you really made a difference to a client or a patient? Could you have a more holistic conversation. I think it makes an enormous difference, and I think you get to know all this information at the same time. So nobody loses out on these process. And so, yes there are many kind of processes. We all know that there are some processes. Yesterday I had to fill in a work-sheet, you know that just sort of assesses our workload. Of course people are entitled, the people who manage me and pay me, as to what my workload is at the moment. But it would be again a different matter, it took me about 5 minutes and my manager was very appreciative of me filling it in. But it would have been a different matter, which some people are now faced with if they’d asked me 55 questions, you know and I’d spent a day in a month which I really don’t have to spare because of my workload on filling in the particular questionnaires. And it would have been a different question altogheter and I would have started undermining the processes, which people do in organizations, if I did not believe that my workload was not fairly allocated. If all of the sudden my workload as an academic had become 80% teaching and 20% administration. I’d kind of go, where’s the research in all of this. At that point, if I don’t believe in the overall purpose of what I’m doing any more, then I really start, you know not filling in these types of forms. Or not filling them in honestly. And so at that point you get that sort of perpetuation of meaninglessness in the workplace.

How important is the whole question of leadership?

Leaders can be very important in terms of for instance helping people to have a sense of accomplishment in what they did because we’re often so frantically moving onto the next thing that we forgot what we actually have accomplished. Or leaders can be very important in terms of you know when they make change in the organisation that you don’t, that you’re clear that you can’t just put people on projects and then kind of pull them off again at random, because then people have no sense of the a continuity or accomplishment. You know that if you have communicated that team work is really important, that you can’t at random then reassign people to different teams all the time because people also have an investment in that and a close connection to the people with whom they work. Or if you say something like ‘we need to do everything with integrity’ and the next day you say ‘oh you need to put some pleasure on that supplier to have that delivered yesterday’ and you’re not making the connection of in order to put that pressure there you are probably starting to make some ethical short-cuts which mean that you know people are starting to worry about their integrity and doing the right thing at work. So I think if leaders have this sort of have a map in front of them of what is important to the employee and whatever instructions I give these employees or whatever future plans I make around how I organize teams, I need to always take into account what already intrinsically motivates employees. If leaders can do that, I think they play a very important role. Essentially because, and so does everyone else. But leaders have more power. They move the things around more. But I think they have a very important role to fulfil.

If on the other hand you ask ‘is leadership more important than say a sense of self-determination, a sense of control over your job’ that’s where or is leadership more important for work than justice, say, or you know, or taking away bureaucracy or too much bureaucracy in organizations, that’s where it becomes quite interesting because we invest a lot of money currently into leadership training, but some of these other variables are in fact very important to promote meaningful work.

Is it the case that the accelerating pace of change and constant restructuring that we are seeing this in the workforce everywhere and in this country in particularly in the public service, where there is a kind of spin off, people are not sure what, why they’re doing things, what the rationale behind all this is, it’s not adequately explained, we’re going to see declining levels of meaningfulness within work. Surely as a result of all that?

Yes, you’re absolutely right. And we are seeing declining levels of meaning in work. And as you say, one of those is the rapid level of change. And it is not, you know, like everybody we know that organizations need to adapt to changing circumstances. But at the same time, if the changes follow each other so quickly, that we can’t actually evaluate what we did prior to the previous change. And where people are starting to talk about, ‘OK didn’t we do this 6 years ago, I’m starting to get a sense of de ja vu here’. So where you’re sort of thinking that you’re doing something different. But in fact, you’ve tried that before. Or as you said, where people have no idea why this change is necessary, how it helps them to do their job better, and they have no ability to define what doing their job better is because that’s where we confuse, also in the public service I think a lot, outcomes and outputs, you know, where we don’t really look, ‘does this really make it better for the patient or the student?’. We just look at ‘have we ticked all these boxes?’, ‘have we got all these measures?’. And it takes time to know if it really is better for the student or the patient. And often before we have really got that data, we’re already onto the next change. And so that is something in terms of meaning where it makes it difficult for people is that a) they have no say it it, so that’s the self-determination part of it,for work to be meaningful you have to have some sort of say in your work. B, rather than spending all that time with say their students, they’re now spending more of that time on administration and C, whenever they are on a project and they’re thinking they’re then asked to do something else, and so they don’t really have that sense of accomplishment. And D because they’re running around so much they forget to ask themselves ‘is this the right thing?’ ‘are we putting pressure of people?’. ‘Where are we compromising standards and what have you?

That’s Associate Professor Marjolein Lips-Wiersma from the department of Management at the University of Canterbury

Tips, training and resources

Staff training: Training for staff can motivating and help staff know that you care. Joyworkz offer a range of workplace wellness seminars such as Effective Strategies to Enjoy Your Work that assist staff to be healthy and happy at work.

A wellness programme: This has the added advantage of providing a workplace with an array of team building activities that are known to contribute to employee motivation and loyalty. If you need help getting started, consider Joyworkz SimplyWell™ package, which takes the stress out of designing a workplace wellness programme.

Fun at work books: There are a range of good books available on promoting fun in the workplace. David Hemsath and Leslie Yerkes are well known authors. Dr Kathryn Owler, director of Joyworkz and local author, has also written Fun at Work: A journey of acceptance, joy and true meaning, a refreshing read for anyone seeking more fun at and enjoyment at work.

Visual prompts: Visual prompts in the workplace can be useful. For instance, the free Alsco Heart Health Poster encourages staff to have a good laugh at work.

Click to contact us and receive a quote, or give us a call on 09 279 2920