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Michael Moran



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How to give real meaning to work


Employee motivation and engagement are perennial hot topics for business leaders, management and HR professionals. Every year there is a veritable avalanches of surveys, books, courses and tools published to address issues around the recruitment and retention of talent that are centred on theories of motivation and engagement.

Employers have a responsibility for the environment provided to employees. It’s not enough just to expect staff to be motivated because you give them a job. You can’t make people motivated or engaged; they won’t go the extra mile or put in discretionary effort just because you pay them to work for you. What you can do is create an environment that encourages and builds the conditions and attitudes that lead to engagement. And your managers must show that their commitment to organisational values and employer brand is real and tangible, otherwise they are unlikely to be able to engender the trust and commitment in employees that builds engagement.

Think about what work means to us and how important the workplace and job satisfaction are. Most adults spend about a third of their waking life at work (counting the time thinking about or worrying about work) – a good workplace provides a sense of purpose, achievement, and a source of social connection – it can enrich our lives. A bad workplace can become a nightmare, leading to stress, depression, and dissatisfaction.

Love the work you do

Winston Churchill said that “If you find a job you love, you'll never work again". I firmly believe he was right; this is critical to career success and thereby, organisational success.

From an organisational point of view we know that building loyalty, motivation and engagement in employees pays real dividends. We know that a committed employee base brings higher levels of innovation and productivity to an organisation; additionally studies have demonstrated that such commitment improves the retention of talented employees.

Research shows that even the simple tasks gain in meaning when they are connected to personal goals and values. We all find meaning in work through different routes; Pratt and Ashforth posit that this may be expressed as:

  • meaning “in working” – a sense that the job contributes to the greater good;
  • meaning “at work” – a sense that one is enabling others to contribute and/or achieve satisfaction;
  • a combination of the two.

Dr. Amy Wrzesniewski, an Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior at Yale University’s School of Management has worked in this field for many years. Her research investigates how individuals derive meaning from their jobs and find positive meaning in work through a variety of paths: the work itself, its perceived contribution to the greater good, interactions and relationships with others on the job, and the ability to challenge oneself, to name a few.

In essence most people see their work as either:

  • a Job (something done for financial reward, a necessity rather than a choice; not a major positive or priority of life)
  • a Career (there is an investment in work and a focus on advancement and achievement), or
  • a Calling (whereby work gives life meaning and purpose, contributes to the greater good and draws on their personal strengths and values; the focus is rewarding work and an end in itself or a means of self-expression)

Wrzesniewski quotes Robert Louis Stevenson “If a man loves the labour of his trade, apart from any question of success or fame, the gods have called him”. It’s not surprising that those who characterise their work as “a calling” are found to be more satisfied in general with their work and their lives.

Meaning and mission

The notion of “a calling” suggests a vocation, something with a spiritual or religious focus, or work that is meaningful in that work activities are morally, socially, and personally significant. Wrzesniewski suggests that in a modern business context the notion of “a calling” can be defined as exhibiting three important elements: callings are action-oriented; callings suggest a sense of meaning and mission; and callings are pro-social in focus.

The three job categories above, of course, aren’t necessarily exclusive – someone with a calling may also want a fair salary and good package – they are also those likely to say that they would do their job even if they weren’t paid. It’s interesting to find that you can’t necessarily predict someone’s orientation based on job title or salary. In fact the research found that in most trades and professions orientation is fairly evenly divided – with about a third of workers falling into each category.

So it’s easy to see that many, though not all, who work in the public sector and the third sector – for example, teachers, medics, emergency workers, charity activists and staff – may well have “a calling”. Also that those who might be characterised as creatives, entrepreneurs or innovators – say, artists, performers, engineers, scientists and many academics – do what they do because it is much more than a career to them.

But we also see that people fulfilling what seem like “just jobs” also find Wrzesniewski’s “sense of meaning and mission” – so some optometrists, hairdressers, janitors – enjoy their work for all sorts of reasons other than financial reward.

Craft to suit strengths and interests

Wrzesniewski argues that experience of meaning at work is malleable; that through job re-crafting individuals can change the way they:

  • approach the tasks in their work
  • increase or decrease the number and kinds of tasks they do as part of their job
  • change the number of relationships they have with others they encounter at work

She has a great example of an office cleaner re-crafting her job by caring for the plants for people who are away or do not have green thumbs.

One of the most interesting things arising from this research is the finding that many calling orientation individuals naturally engage in making minor changes to the tasks and relations of their work. By taking the initiative in small ways, people perform their roles in ways that are meaningful to them, giving them increased sense of purpose.

Individuals with a calling orientation report higher satisfaction with their lives and work, and are more likely to “craft” their jobs to fit their strengths and interests. Wrzesniewski characterises this as a “portable benefit” for those who are generally positive about a variety of work experiences. On the other hand, those with a job orientation may simply find more meaning in activities outside of the work setting.

Every contribution counts

So what we feel about our work matters more than the task in hand; the cleaner, the nurse, the technician who feel they can build meaningful relationships with their customers or organisations, find that makes their work more of a calling than a job.

That sense of meaning and mission is what you need to harness in order to make real progress in improving employee engagement. There’s a possibly apocryphal story about a janitor at NASA who when asked what he did replied that he was “helping to put a man on the moon”.

That’s what you want. People who feel they are part of things, that they understand your vision and strategy and that their contribution counts for something. They put effort in because they know see the link between their performance and organizational success.

Understanding this concept of work orientation enables identification of motivators and drivers so that jobs, roles, responsibilities, careers can be crafted or tailored for the work situation and the individual. It can facilitate serious career conversations between management and employees that will help both parties to build productive and satisfying careers that serve organisational imperatives and goals.


Katz, D., & Kahn, R. (1978). The Social Psychology of Organizations, Second edition, John Wiley and Sons, New York.

Mowday, R., Porter, L., & Steers, R. (1982). Employee-Organizational Linkages, Academic Press. New York.

O’Reilly C., III, & Chatman, J. (1986), Organizational Commitment and Psychological Attachment: The Effects of Compliance, Identification, and Internalization on Prosocial Behavior. Journal of Applied Psychology.

Pratt, M. G. & Ashforth, B. E. (2003). Fostering meaningfulness in working and at work. In K. Cameron, J. Dutton, & R. Quinn (Eds.), Positive organizational scholarship: Foundations of a new discipline. San Francisco: Berrett-Kohler.


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