Making Work Meaningful

Updated: Mar 1, 2019

10 years ago I was walking on a remote beach in South Africa with my boyfriend at the time. A woman and her dog walked past us. The dog, an English bulldog, was wearing a harness attached to a big tire. The dog was happily plodding along dragging this tire through the sand. Perplexed, we stopped the woman and asked why her dog was dragging a tire.


She laughed and said that two years ago something was wrong with her dog. He wouldn’t eat and moped around the house all day. Worried, she brought him to a number of vets who couldn’t figure out what was wrong with him until one finally recommended a dog psychiatrist: the dog appeared to be depressed. The dog psychiatrist within minutes of meeting the dog diagnosed the problem. The dog had no purpose. Here was a working dog who didn’t work. He had no reason to get up every day. So the psychiatrist suggested a simple solution: Give the dog a tire to drag around. Give him a purpose. And voilà! It worked. The dog’s mood immediately improved as he happily dragged around his tire.


Everyone needs their tire. We all need purpose and meaning in our lives. A recent hot article bemoaned the fact that today we are less satisfied and derive less meaning from our jobs than we did twenty years ago. The article talks about how we can work to find meaning in what we do (one strategy the author suggested was Job Crafting, one of my favorite tools!). But, I think the article misses a slight nuance about what we mean by meaning.


We often talk about Meaning with a capital “M”. We talk about Meaning as this grand outcome, that we spend years striving for and that often results after much soul-searching, career-switching, and very expensive therapy bills. Meaning feels binary: we either have it or we don’t, and for many of us in our current roles, we just don’t have it. We search for other jobs or other paths in order to finally track down that elusive Meaning.


But, I prefer to think about the small “m” meaning. Lowercase meaning is the fulfillment, excitement and curiosity you get from the day-to-day. It’s the feeling when you’re walking home from work of being satisfied that you’ve made some small impact. In my very humble opinion, focusing on the small “m” meaning will get you to the big “M” meaning over time, but it’s much less daunting and overwhelming to focus on the little things you can do to derive meaning in your work.


But, here's a little twist. I’m not going to talk about how you can find meaning; rather, we are going to focus on how you, as a manager, can directly help your team members find meaning in their work! That’s because: Great managers actively work to help make their employees’ jobs meaningful.


Organizational psychologist Richard Hackman talks about the five factors that make work meaningful: skill variety, task identity, task significance, autonomy, and feedback. Below I describe these five factors with a handy dandy suggestion of how you, as a manager, can impact these factors in the hopes of helping your team members find more meaning in their jobs.

The What and the How of Making Work Meaningful


1. Skill Variety: Work that is varied and challenging. No one wants to do the same exact thing day in and day out.

  • How: Job rotation! Can you rotate the roles on your team (even if small roles) so that individuals are constantly learning (hence the challenge) and performing new tasks (hence the variation).

2. Task Identity: Work that completes a whole task or goal, versus just a little piece of a task. For example, it’s far more meaningful to scope the research question, conduct the research, and synthesize and present the findings, as opposed to just cleaning the data and handing that off to the data analyzer who then hands it off to the synthesizer / presenter.

  • How: It’s often more efficient to create highly specialized roles on your team (e.g., the data cleaner, the memo writer), but this prevents task identity. When possible, structure individuals’ work as projects, not as roles. When possible, provide an opportunity (even if a contrived one) for people to go further along “the value chain” in their project (e.g., presenting their findings to the internal team, even if they won’t be the ones presenting the findings externally.)

3. Task Significance: Work that has an impact on the lives of other people. The classic example is that the factory worker whose job is to tighten screws finds far more meaning when he / she recognizes that the screws are in service of tightening the brakes of an airplane, and hence keep people safe.

  • How: The closer you can get your team members to the who behind the work you do the better. That might mean letting your team members silently listen in on sales or client calls. Could also mean having a frequent refrain on your team of “how does this work serve our mission” and giving people the space to talk through how their own work serves the mission. (Want statistically significant proof about how important task significance is? See Adam Grant’s seminal work on this topic.)

4. Autonomy: The freedom, independence and discretion in scheduling work, and more importantly, in determining how the work will be carried out.

  • How: Set clear expectations of output up front, but then let your employee figure out how to achieve that output. It will be an iterative process (and encourage your team member to share early and often how they are going to carry out their work), but give them the ownership of figuring out how to get there.

5. Feedback: Knowledge of the results and effectiveness of the work that you’ve done. Know that feeling when you put a ton of blood, sweat, and tears into a work product, send it to your manager, and…..crickets? Like you hear nothing back? Well, that’s the opposite of feedback.

  • How: First, always, under every single circumstance acknowledge when someone sends along work! But, second, send an email that details specifically how a team member’s work contributed to a meeting, work product or broader goal. A note that says “The analysis you did really helped the client to change their perspective in yesterday’s meeting. It caused us to talk more about issue X.” is super duper powerful!!

We put tons of pressure on ourselves to find Meaning. Often in this search, I feel overwhelmed, and then quickly after, disappointed, as I struggle to figure out my purpose and how what I do has any kind of cosmic Meaning.* I’ve changed jobs, I’ve changed careers, I’ve changed cities, and I’ve changed countries all in the quest to find Meaning. So, trust me, I am no Meaning expert. But, I am hoping that the small, incremental ways of building more meaning into you and your team’s day-to-day work will help in the search for a broader sense of purpose and fulfillment. And, if that fails, you can always go the tire pulling route.


TL;DR

  • We all need purpose and meaning in our life and in our work; unfortunately, as a whole, we are finding our work to be less meaningful than before.

  • As a manager, you can help your team member find meaning in their day-to-day work.

  • There are five factors that make a job meaningful: task significance, task identity, skill variety, autonomy, and feedback. Often little things you do as a manager can impact those five factors.

  • Don’t put so much pressure on yourself to find meaning!


*My all time favorite book for finding your cosmic Meaning? The Untethered Soul by Mickey Singer. Life changing. Thank you, Troy Jackson, for first introducing me to this masterpiece!


#ManagingIndividuals #ManagingYourself

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