The quality of leadership receives hardly any mention when employees describe meaningful moments at work, however poor management is the top destroyer of meaningfulness, according to a new study.
Researchers at the University of Sussex and the University of Greenwich discovered that rather than being similar to other work-related attitudes (such as engagement or commitment), meaningfulness at work tends to be very personal and individual. It is also often revealed to employees upon reflection.
Therefore, what managers can do to encourage meaningfulness is limited, but what they can do to introduce meaninglessness is of much greater capacity.
The study was carried out by Professor Katie Bailey, an employee engagement expert at Sussex's School of Business, Management and Economics, and Dr Adrian Madden of Greenwich's business school.
They interviewed 135 people working in 10 different occupations to ask about incidents when they found their work to be meaningful and times when they asked themselves: "What's the point of doing this job?"
Bailey said that in experiencing work as meaningful, people cease to be workers and relate as human beings, "reaching out in a bond of common humanity to others".
"For organisations seeking to manage meaningfulness, the ethical and moral responsibility is great, since they are bridging the gap between work and personal life,” added Bailey.
The authors also identified the 'seven deadly sins' of meaninglessness, including disconnecting people from their values, overriding peoples' better judgment and disconnecting people from supporting relationships.
Despite the great challenges of helping employees find meaningful work, "the benefits for individuals and organisations that accrue from meaningful workplaces can be even greater", the authors write.
"Organisations that succeed in this are more likely to attract, retain, and motivate the employees they need to build sustainably for the future, and to create the kind of workplaces where human beings can thrive,” said Dr Madden.
The study found five qualities of meaningful work:
1. Self-Transcendent. Individuals tend to experience their work as meaningful when it matters to others more than just to themselves. In this way, meaningful work is self-transcendent.
2. Poignant. People often find their work to be full of meaning at moments associated with mixed, uncomfortable, or even painful thoughts and feelings, not just a sense of unalloyed joy and happiness.
3. Episodic. A sense of meaningfulness arises in an episodic rather than a sustained way. It seems that no one can find their work consistently meaningful, but rather that an awareness that work is meaningful arises at peak times that are generative of strong experiences.
4. Reflective. Meaningfulness is rarely experienced in the moment, but rather in retrospect and on reflection when people are able to see their completed work and make connections between their achievements and a wider sense of life meaning.
5. Personal. Work that is meaningful is often understood by people not just in the context of their work but also in the wider context of their personal life experiences.
The research is published in the MIT Sloan Management Review.