What Does Your Work Mean to You?

Every day countless words are dedicated to writing about the economics of work.  Lately, the future of work has been a hot topic of discussion. But when it comes to exploring the meaning of work, the search engine slows down.  It’s a challenging task because what we call work has changed dramatically in the last generation. Just as when the factory was born, the technological revolution and globalization of the last thirty years is transforming work and its meaning.

Work is still essentially defined as “doing.” We still look for external results to define the success of our work. While the concept of intrinsic reward is acknowledged as a useful contributing component for the final work product, it still isn’t considered as valuable in and of itself. This varies if we’re self employed but the measurement of the value of our work is still largely defined by the marketplace.
Hundreds of millions globally are still doing hard labor, often without rights, benefits, decent working conditions and fair pay. How do these workers, often working in the shadows, derive “meaning” from their work? Tragically, too many workers in the 21st century are laboring in 19th century conditions. Organizations like the National Domestic Workers Alliance advocate for a “Workers Bill of Rights” to improve the working conditions of mostly women workers, often without benefits or employee protections.  In a global economy. workers rights can vary dramatically from country to country, but the reality is that when we look around our homes, in our refrigerators and at the tools we use in the workplace, all work is local. So when we speak about the meaning of work, we must consider that even in drastically different conditions and environments, the essential meaning of work must first begin with fair and just compensation and protection for all workers everywhere.  We all benefit from the work that is done when people are respected, valued and equitably compensated.

What Does Meaning from Work Mean?

“Work is about a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.”

Studs Terkel, author of the classic book, Working

Expecting meaning from work within the context of the hard working conditions outlined above seems frivolous, at best, but we know that the search for meaning is as old as the human story Writing about work, Michael Steger, Director of the Laboratory for the Study of Meaning and Quality of Life says, “Few other avenues offer as much promise for accomplishing valued outcomes as creating meaning in work – both in terms of individual flourishing, citizenship, commitment, and engagement in terms of long-term, sustainable innovation, culture maintenance and permanency in organizations.”

Dr. Steger’s cogent case for the importance of the meaning of work holds powerful implications for personal and institutional responsibilities to “make meaning.”  Institutions, at the very least, must guarantee safe and decent work conditions with economic parity for workers in the 21st century. But that’s not enough.  In his Harvard Business Review article, Create a Meaningful Life through Meaningful Work, author Umair Haque writes, “Maybe the real depression we’ve got to contend with isn’t merely one of how much economic output we’re generating – but what we’re putting out there and why. Call it a depression of human potential, a tale of human insignificance being willfully squandered.”

Research at McKinsey concluded that providing meaningful work to employees was the most important contributing factor to a high level of engagement. In her book, The Progress Principle, author Teresa Amabile  reports that of all the events that can deeply engage people in their work, the single most important factor was meaningful work.  Well practiced in “disengagement,” leaders and organizations must learn which actions and conditions are meaning killers and which bring energy and engagement to life. According to Ms. Amabile, “Beyond affecting the well-being of employees, research shows that the “inner work life” affects the bottom line. People are more creative, productive, committed and collegial in their jobs when they have positive inner work lives. But it’s not just any sort of progress in work that matters. The first and fundamental requirement is that work be meaningful to the people doing it.”

There’s growing agreement about the types of ways leaders and workers at any level can create the conditions that inspire meaningful experience within the workplace:

  • Work to Build Trust – Why trust? Because everything that is meaningful about relationships relies on it. Trust is at historically low levels within institutions. Committing to building trust is critical to deepening meaningful experience
  • Build Quality Connection & Community – People want to believe and belong. Though cynicism is pervasive, most people want to feel part of something greater than their own ambition.  Create the conditions for collaborative learning, problem solving and task implementation and you’ll advance meaning within any work relationship.
  • Help Others Develop – Old competitive models that are characterized by hoarding information and power are dying a slow death. Your contribution to the development of others is a double-dip – your giving – they’re receiving and everyone has the opportunity to grow from the experience.
  • Focus on Strengths, Values and Differences – Most workplaces still demand (implicitly and explicitly) too much conformity. The pressure to perform and conform has a chilling effect on honesty, contribution and creativity. Everyone in the room has something unique to contribute – help them find it and you will automatically enrich meaning.
  • Allow Honest and Open Expression of Feelings – I’m still amazed at how frightening the thought of this is to so many managers. I think they imagine people all running amuck,  therapy sessions in cubicles and their darkest secrets being exposed. My experience is that most employees value honesty above all else in the workplace – and most of them don’t believe they can be truly honest where they work. This emotional straitjacket is what most workers are wearing as they make their way through the thicket of office politics. The exhausting charade that many workers must maintain hour after hour is one of the greatest meaning-killers on the list.
  • Encourage, Model and Reinforce Civility – From where I sit, I can’t imagine working in some of the workplaces I hear about. Incivility takes many forms: use of inflammatory or derogatory language, rude behaviors, insensitivity, gossip and outright bullying. Your behavior is the only thing you have control over, so make it impeccable, especially if you are a leader. If you’re in a position to set organizational policy to promote greater civility, do it. If not, create your own informal norms for communication, respect of other’s rights and privacy protections.
  • Create Time for Self-Reflection – It’s difficult to find the value and meaning of experience if we don’t allow the time to self-reflect. This applies to teams, work groups and organizations as well.  This practice should be built into the fabric of our personal and organizational lives.

While our definitions of what constitutes “meaningful work” may be in a state of flux, our search for meaning continues. While we may not love our work or work for love there should be nothing that dampens our desire and drive for meaning. Meaning makes our life worthwhile. It is the great motivator.  Many of us have lowered the bar for our own meaning. Too often we settle for a tasks-only orientation to our work, barely stopping to consider the why of what we do. Finding meaning in our work requires that we regularly step back and connect what we value with what we do. This is true in any endeavor, but especially important in our work.

Visioning the brave new world of meaning at work, author & poet David Whyte writes in his book, Crossing the Unknown Sea, Every organization attempting to wake up to this newly youthful world is now asking for qualities from its people that are touchstones of their humanity. In order to get a real conversation with the world you have to drop the artificial language, drop the politics and drop an environment based on fear and hiding. People must be encouraged not only to know their craft, their products, their work and the people they serve, but to know a little of themselves. In order to respond to the world of wants, they must know something of what they want and they do not want.” Making meaning is work – but the possibilities are life-giving.

Thanks for reading!
Louise Altman, Partner, Intentional Communication Consultants
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Photo: Flickr Bixento


  1. Hi there, I have nominated you for the ‘Liebster Award’

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