Bailey and Madden interviewed 135 people in the United Kingdom from many different occupations. Their research confirmed factors previously identified such as:
- sense of pride in work well done
- interesting, absorbing, or creative work
- recognition from others.
- Self-transcendent. Work is meaningful “when it mattered to others more than just to themselves.” For example, a garbage collector feeling value in knowing the trash he collected was being recycled, that he was making a small contribution to a better environment for others.
- Poignant. Meaningful work is not necessarily associated with being engaged or happy. Challenging, even negative work experiences can hold rich significance, e.g., a nurse with a patient at the end of a life.
- Episodic. Meaningfulness occurs in moments and comes and goes. In the midst of their work days people may not be conscious of the meaningfulness of work except when strong experiences occur that highlight that meaningfulness, e.g., a stonemason witnessing the unveiling of a structure he helped build.
- Reflective. “Meaningfulness was rarely experienced in the moment but rather in retrospect and on reflection . . .” For example, a leader is about to turn off the lights after a business Christmas party, pauses, and then reflects on the great year that just passed and the achievements.
- Personal. Meaningful work went beyond engagement or satisfaction at work and seemed more connected to life satisfaction and “personal life experiences.” For example, a musician was deeply moved when his father for the first time saw him perform in public.
Bailey and Madden concluded that it is a complex undertaking for organizations to help employees see work as meaningful, a much more difficult undertaking than increasing engagement or job satisfaction.
1. The five characteristics of meaningful work identified by Bailey and Madden were just one part of a much larger article. Even so, these characteristics deserve more discussion and research. Their research is descriptive based on interviews. Are there prescriptive ideas we can develop from their findings, suggestions that leaders may find helpful?
2. I agree that it is a difficult task to help employees see work as meaningful. But I am a tad more optimistic than the authors. Ultimately it is the individual who gives meaning to anything, including work. However, a leader can create an environment where meaningfulness is more easily seen, especially through words and actions that show connections of work to the bigger picture, words and actions of appreciation, words and actions that share the meaning the leader finds in the work being accomplished.
Bailey, C., & Madden, A. (2016). What makes work meaningful -- or meaningless. MIT Sloan Management Review, 57(4), 53-61.
Image, "Waste collector at work in Nice (France)" by KevinB.
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© John Ballard, PhD, 2017. All rights reserved.
Author of Decoding the Workplace, BEST CAREER BOOK Next Generation Indie Book Awards 2016.
"Decoding the Workplace: 50 Keys to Understanding People in Organizations is as informed and informative a read as it is thoughtful and thought-provoking. . . Decoding the Workplace should be considered critically important reading for anyone working in a corporate environment." —Midwest Book Review