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findings

Bosses can make your work feel meaningless

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The university professor remembers the day he walked out of a successful lecture feeling like a rock star. The stonemason recalls placing a stone bearing his team’s mark into a cathedral wall, knowing he would be a part of history.

Meaningful work is something we all crave. In some cases, employees rank a sense of meaning higher than pay, promotions, even good working conditions. But how exactly does one achieve that feeling?

A new study in the business journal MIT Sloan Management Review finds that meaningfulness at work is something intensely personal that individuals find for themselves: Bosses typically have no part in fostering it. But they can thwart it. In fact, poor management is the number one destroyer of meaningfulness in the workplace, the authors found.

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“The things that appeared to create a sense of meaningfulness were very different from the ones that decreased that sense,” says study coauthor Katie Bailey, an employee engagement expert at the University of Sussex in the UK.

Though meaningfulness is highly valued at work, little empirical research has been done into where and how people find meaning on the job. Bailey and coauthor Adrian Madden interviewed 135 employees across 10 occupations — retail assistants, priests, artists, lawyers, academics, entrepreneurs, nurses, soldiers, stonemasons, and garbage collectors — about times when they found their work meaningful or meaningless.

The responses revealed common qualities of meaningful work, as well as pitfalls that suck meaning away. Meaningfulness often emerged not from a person’s own success on the job but from seeing the impact of the work on other people or the wider world. A garbage collector, for example, felt a sense of purpose at the end of the day when refuse was sent to recycling, a feeling that he had contributed to a clean environment for his grandchildren. Moments of meaning also tended to be personal. In one case, a musician described his father attending one of his performances for the first time and finally coming to appreciate the son’s work.

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Meaningfulness often came in moments, rather than sustained periods, and those moments were not always a happy experience — for example, the long, hard hours put in by lawyers for a client. Together, these features suggest that meaningful work is a complex event related to more than simple job satisfaction.

Contrary to Bailey and Madden’s expectations, none of the workers’ meaningful experiences were clearly associated with actions of bosses or managers. In fact, management received virtually no mention until it was time to talk about what eroded meaningfulness in work, says Bailey. Then stories of bosses were abundant.

“The things that caused people to find their work meaningless had very much to do with their managers and leaders,” says Bailey. Employees felt a sense of futility in work when they felt their values were disconnected from their employer’s values — when nurses, for instance, were forced to send patients home to free up bed space. Feelings of meaninglessness also emerged when employees were taken for granted, given pointless work to do, treated unfairly, or isolated from co-workers.

Although meaningfulness is something individuals tend to find for themselves, leaders can create an “ecosystem” that enriches an employee’s experience, says Bailey. For example, leaders can articulate the company’s values, then demonstrate to employees how their jobs and tasks contribute to those values or a broader purpose. “This is not something managers can mandate,” notes Bailey. “Instead of saying to people, ‘Your work is totally meaningful, isn’t it?,’ create an environment where they can find that out for themselves.”

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Megan Scudellari can be reached at megan@scudellari.com.