Do You Know What It Means to Do Meaningful Work?

Yesterday, I wrote about the importance of engaging in meaningful work for employees. But what, exactly, does “meaningful work” mean?

As I was catching up on my (admittedly large) backlog of news and blogs in my reader, I found this nugget from the Switch & Shift blog (which is rapidly becoming one of my favorite daily reads):

Managers cannot make work meaningful for employees. Managers, however, can shape the workplace environment to let meaningful work become possible for employees. With a context set to let meaning be experienced, employees can leverage the environment to derive meaning from their work.

Meaningful work is vague. What exactly is it? Assuredly it begins quite selfishly. But this is out of necessity. For work to be meaningful, it is the employee who must label it so. This requires a belief that meaningful work is a desired outcome from managements’ actions. And employees believe managements’ intentions and see actions aimed to let meaning emerge.”

Knowing the meaning of your work

This reminds me of the possibly apocryphal story of the senior military leader touring NASA Space Center during the early days of the space race. The leader noticed a janitor cleaning an area of mission control and asked, “What are you doing?”

The janitor didn’t reply with the obvious, “I’m sweeping the floor.” No, he said, “I’m helping to put a man on the moon.”

In this story, the employee knew and understood the greater purpose of his efforts. Keeping a neat and clean work environment would help to eliminate distractions for the scientists and engineers in mission control, thereby helping to contribute to the greater space mission. This employee knew the meaning of his work.

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Personally, I don’t lead a group of strategy consultants. I help companies change their cultures to ones of appreciation and recognition.

What do you do for work? What’s the real meaning of your work?

You can find more from Derek Irvine on his Recognize This! blog.

Derek Irvine is senior vice president of client strategy and consulting at Workhuman, where he leads the company’s consulting and analytics divisions. His writing is regularly featured across major HR publications, including HR Magazine, Human Resource Executive, HR Zone, and Workspan.