|Source: Good Free Photos|
Several years ago, Catherine Bailey and Adrian Madden published an article for MIT Sloan Management Review titled, "What Makes Work Meaningful — Or Meaningless." Here's their summary of the findings from their research:
We interviewed 135 people working in 10 very different occupations and asked them to tell us stories about incidents or times when they found their work to be meaningful and, conversely, times when they asked themselves “what’s the point in doing this job?” We expected to find that meaningfulness would be similar to other work-related attitudes, such as engagement or commitment, in that it would arise purely in response to events or situations within the work environment. However we found that, unlike these other attitudes, meaningfulness tended to be something intensely personal and individual; it was often revealed to employees as they reflected on their work and its wider contribution to society in ways that mattered to them as individuals. People tended to speak of their work as meaningful in relation to thoughts or memories of significant family members such as parents or children, bridging the gap between the public and the personal realms. We also expected meaningfulness to be a relatively enduring state of mind experienced by individuals towards their work; instead, our interviewees talked of the unplanned, unexpected or surprising moments during which they found their work deeply meaningful.
We were anticipating our data would show that the meaningfulness experienced by employees in relation to their work was clearly associated with the actions taken by managers, such that, for example, transformational leaders would have followers who found their work meaningful, whereas transactional leaders would notv . In fact, our research showed that although quality of leadership received virtually no mention at all when people described meaningful moments at work, poor management was top of the list of meaning-destroyers.
Leaders need to consider these findings carefully. How are they contributing to an environment in which employees find their work meaningful? How are they eroding meaning or frustrating those who seek meaning in their work? Meaning is incredibly important when it comes to intrinsic motivation and performance. As Google found in their study of team performance, titled Project Aristotle, "Finding a sense of purpose in either the work itself or the output is important for team effectiveness. The meaning of work is personal and can vary: financial security, supporting family, helping the team succeed, or self-expression for each individual, for example."