Note from the Editor: While this piece by Shawn Murphy is related to business practices and targeted to managers and business leaders, the parallels to education and student learning are striking. Teachers, curricula developers, and education leaders can find plenty herein to ponder, reflect on, and apply in practice. It was originally posted at Switch and Shift and is reposted here with the permission of the author.
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.
To explain what meaningful work is, let’s look at its characteristics. In short, however, meaningful work is employees’ perceived positive value of what they are doing. It’s a source of joy in their overall life. In the words of Max Depree, “[it’s] maturing, enriching, and fulfilling, healing, and joyful.”
Basic needs are met
Think Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Employees physiological and safety needs must be met. It’s a base requirement for meaningful work to emerge.
Strengths are leveraged
Don’t confuse strengths with competency. Strengths are what energize you. Employees must experience work that energizes them. Otherwise all work is draining and meaning is absent.
Pull personal satisfaction from work
Employees’ perceive their work to be fulfilling.
Being in on things
Employees believe they are trusted with important, inside knowledge. This includes knowing that there is important information but it must be kept confidential from employees for the benefit of the organization.
Treated with respect by peers and managers
This doesn’t say liked, but respected. There is a difference. At its core is employees’ believe they can speak their ideas and be in action to achieve the best possible outcomes.
See how one’s work fits into the bigger picture
Really, what hasn’t been said or written about this. Enough said.
Personal sense of independence and interdependence
Autonomy in completing one’s work has always been important. Collaboration is vital in the 21st century given the internet and globalization. These raise the importance of interdependence in today’s workplaces.
Employees believe they are valued by the organization, by management
To be viewed as a replaceable cog in the proverbial wheel is antiquated management. Organizations thrive or die based on human actions. To that end, meaningful work is marked by the belief that employees are the means to a profitable end.
Opportunities to know self
Let’s look back to Max Depree’s words. For work to be meaningful, there must be a maturing nature of work. Such an evolving awareness of the nature of work is best met by an evolving, deepening awareness of one’s self. Coaching, feedback and awareness of one’s place in the universe are vital to make sense of meaningful work. Such opportunities are humbling.
Promotion of other’s satisfaction
Immanuel Kant, philosopher, placed our ability to be concerned for other’s wellbeing and humanity as important to meaningful work. Such a belief places an emphasis on a strong, united team supporting others’ ability to flourish.
Recognized, give recognition for good work
For meaningful work to emerge, employees’ efforts are recognized in manners important to the person. Furthermore, giving recognition is believed to matter, creating a cycle of reciprocity that is genuine.
In today’s workplace, meaningful work is radical. For some managers, to influence a meaningful workplace environment is heretical. This is precisely what our workplaces need.