Finding meaning in work

Till now, our focus has been on happiness or positive emotions in the workplace. However, psychological research has shown that happiness and meaning, though closely related, are different constructs. And we all intuitively know that if the happy state of affairs is not accompanied with a sense of personal meaning and accomplishment, it’s a hollow state of affairs. It’s like taking the blue pill and remaining trapped in the Matrix. If one adds, making work meaningful, as another lever of making employees engaged and productive, then the combination of happiness and meaning becomes more than the sum of its parts.

A pile of Lego blocks, of assorted colours and...

A pile of Lego blocks, of assorted colours and sizes. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

  1. Ignore at your own peril. How would you feel if your contributions at work were ignored or if what you did was actually meaningless and never put to use? Many product based companies have realized that a majority of features they add are never or very rarely used, so this is a real situation. Consider a study by Dan Ariely, in which students had to complete a task on a sheet of paper and there were three conditions. In one the experimenter looked at the paper and acknowledged their work. In the second, the paper was immediately shredded before their eyes before anyone else could take a look at their results; and in the third the paper was ignored and put in a pile of papers. Both passive ignoring and active shredding was equally demotivating to the individuals, so think twice before discouraging or ignoring someone at work.
  2. Sisyphean tasks, anyone? In another experiment, Dan Ariely asked participants to make Lego toys and again there were two conditions. In the Sisyphean condition, the lego toys were destroyed immediately before the eyes of the participants who made them while in the meaningful condition, the created toys were hidden under the table and would be destroyed only later once the experiment was over. The first group made only 7 toys on average while the meaningful group made on an average 11 toys. The point being that if your day job is meaningless and likely to have little impact, you will be less productive/ engaged/ happy.
  3. Knowing the impact you have is the key. Now that we know that meaningful work is important, how do we endow meaning to work? Research by Adam Grant gives some clues. In one study, Adam worked with telecallers associated with University of Michigan and responsible for raising funds from the alumni. Because of the nature of work, where majority of people refused donations, the burnout was high. To address this Adam made the telecallers interact for 10 minutes with students who had benefited from the fundraising by receiving scholarships. This brief interaction boosted fundraising by 171 percent and time spent on calls by 142 percent. And all this was below conscious awareness of having found meaning. Thus, a parallel way to induce meaning in your work is to visit / interact with the end beneficiaries or customers and see for yourself the impact your products or services are having in the real world.
  4. Be other centered: In another interesting study Grant put up signs at a hospital’s hand-washing stations, reading either “Hand hygiene prevents you from catching diseases” or “Hand hygiene prevents patients from catching diseases.” Doctors and nurses used 45 percent more soap or hand sanitizer in the stations with signs that mentioned patients. The bottom line being that you find it more meaningful when the work you are doing is benefiting others and society and not just yourself. Be on the lookout for opportunities to define your work as not just a paycheck for yourself but as a way to help others.
English: hand washing with soap

English: hand washing with soap (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In this lesson, we looked at the importance of meaningful work and how we can add some meaning to our work; in the next lesson we will take a closer look at crafting our jobs to create meaning and happiness.

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