One of the values of my current employer is “meaningful work”, as in, we provide “meaningful work” opportunities to our employees. As a people manager and leader in the organization, I definitely want our employees to genuinely find meaning in their work for our clients and for our firm. And as an employee, the concept of meaningful work resonates with me, too. I definitely want the work I do to have meaning… somehow… to someone… somewhere. “Meaningful” meaning… what exactly?
What is “meaningful work?” Here is a definition provided by Ethics and Business Law professor Christopher Michaelson, Opus College of Business at the University of St. Thomas:
Meaningful work refers not only to work that is meaningful to the worker but that also contributes meaningfully to general well-being.
Huh?! This definition is so vague that it is meaningless. Alternatively, this definition implies that “meaning” is so much in the eye and experience of the individual that it is impossible to define pragmatically.
In an interview with Charlie Rose and quoted at 37signals, Malcome Gladwell defines meaningful work as thus:
Meaningful work is work that is autonomous. Work that is complex, that occupies your mind. And work where there is a relationship between effort and reward — for everything you put in, you get something out… If you are convinced that the work you are doing is meaningful… there’s no cost to it.
Okay, that one is a little more workable, at least from an employer and manager point of view. Still, there seems to be a large amount of subjectivity in defining work that is complex and occupies one’s mind. And if that is indeed the case, what is an employer, like mine, that aspires to provide meaningful work opportunities to its thousands of employees, to do?!
Casting about for a definition of meaningful work that can be relevant and somewhat implementable, I came across NetImpact’s Talent Report: What Workers Want in 2012. (I know its 2013, but I am hoping that the data in the report has some longevity.) This cool study investigated how people view ‘impact jobs,’ or jobs that provide the opportunity to make social or environmental impact, and the data was collected from three generations of employed college graduates (Baby Boomer, Gen X and Millenials) as well as current college students.
For me (a people manager and member of my organization’s leadership team), the most interesting part of the study is the report of the job attributes that the participants indicated as most important to them:
The first set includes the non-negotiable’s. …attributes like office environment, positive culture, and compensation fall into this category. [Then come] the differentiators: those attributes that can turn a merely good job into a great one… This includes a job that makes the world a better place or a company that shares their values.
Digging further, the values shared are around having social or environmental impact, and being able to have direct line of sight to that impact. And interestingly, being in a job with social or environmental impact is more important to women rather than men (perhaps more fodder for the gender diversity / Lean In discussion…).
The most encouraging data point of the study, though, was the finding that “the majority of all generations (61-70%) agree that they have a personal responsibility to make things better for society, rather than leaving it to others.” For me, this is how I will start the conversation with my direct reports on why and how work is meaningful for them. How do they see their work, their efforts, their engagement, positively impacting others around them – clients, colleagues, community? How do they want to positively impact their clients, their colleagues, their community? And how can we (the company, people managers, peers) help them realize their positive impact? And in reflecting upon this, I realized that my best work days are not those in which I come up with the right answer or in which I deliver a talent management strategy or a change management framework. My best work days are when someone I am working with has their own epiphany, or breaks through to a higher level of competence and capability, or realizes their own positive impact on the world. Now that’s meaningful to me.