What Makes Work Meaningful

256Lately I’ve been thinking about motivation and engagement at work, what drives some folks to be upbeat and others to be dragging in the same work environment. One thing I’ve noticed is that there is an aura of anxiety nearly everywhere due to the gloom of the government shutdown. Yet as I walk the halls of corporate America, I see some folks busily at work contented with their life and at ease with the turmoil around them. How is it that some individuals can navigate rough waters and others seem to sink in misery when things go wrong?

This week I had an intriguing conversation with one of my upbeat colleagues that gave me a clue as to what might be at the bottom of this variance of approach to the job. My friend talked about how fulfilling his work is to him, how truly engaged he is in the projects he is working on. I’ve spent some time reading and writing about engagement and motivation (see my February 2012 newsletter.) A common thread among many of the current writers on motivation is the concept of finding meaning in one’s work. Dan Pink, in his book Drive calls this purpose. Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer in The Progress Principle, call it progress in achieving goals in meaningful work. In other words, I am motivated and engaged when I find meaning in what I do and that sustains me through all the turmoil I feel around me.

The challenge for leaders who want to increase motivation and engagement is that meaning and purpose can’t be manufactured. I find purpose in my work through the interplay of context, what I do, and my personal values and beliefs. If I have a strong personal value for service and my work involves helping others, I will find a great sense of purpose in my work. If I have a strong work ethic that tells me hard work and completing tasks is important, I will find meaning in work that makes demands on my time and skills. Since meaning is so strongly tied to my values, it is not an absolute set of conditions a leader can set up. It is personal to every individual at work.

Look around you and you will see evidence of the personal nature of purpose. I know of individuals who take pride in work that I would find dull and of questionable value. Various jobs in food service or retail sales come to mind. Yet I can see folks truly energized by these jobs. Conversely, I can often see individuals involved in work that I would find fascinating and fulfilling yet they yearn for some other kind of challenge. I can’t judge the fulfillment of work from my value system; I need to see it through the eyes of the person doing the work itself.

Purpose, meaning, fulfillment ultimately resides within ourselves. Leaders can provide a clear and compelling vision of the work and its designated purpose and outcomes but each individual needs to align this picture with their own personal values and beliefs to feel truly fulfilled and engaged.