How to make work more meaningful

Recent research from executive education providers Roffey Park suggests that 63 per cent of board directors, 72 per cent of middle managers and 69 per cent of directors and senior managers are looking for a greater sense of meaning in their working lives. The research, including a survey and Roffey Park’s Management Agenda 2004, also states there is a clear business case for taking the issue of meaning seriously.

The search for meaning appears to be part of a fundamental human need to feel important and make a difference. According to the research – involving more than 1,000 managers from across various industries – this quest can be triggered by life changes, such as reaching a landmark birthday. It can also be prompted by changes in an organisation.

The business case for meaning is built around a simple premise: people who feel their work lacks meaning are more likely to leave their jobs, causing retention problems (42 per cent of the research sample is currently looking for other jobs). And organisations are likely to find that change is harder to manage, thanks to employee cynicism. Given that the largest group reporting a search for meaning are those aged between 20-30, organisations are also increasingly likely to find recruitment of much sought-after young talent harder to achieve.

Having meaning appears to correlate strongly with doing ‘good work’ – the release of discretionary effort that theorists have variously estimated raises performance by 19 per cent.

For Csikszentmihalyi (professor and former chairman of the Department of Psychology at the University of Chicago) and others, ‘doing good work feels good. Few things in life are as enjoyable as when we concentrate on a difficult task, using all our skills, knowing what has to be done. In flow we feel totally involved, lost in seemingly effortless performance’. Is this the secret of high levels of motivation?

According to the research, the main drivers for this search for greater meaning include dissatisfaction with long working hours, concern over the prospect of longer working lives and uncertainty over pensions, as well as broader concerns about a more materialistic and secular society; accountancy and other scandals at high levels, such as WorldCom and Enron, and global political instability.

People working in large organisations, with large spans of control and heavy workloads, tend to be most likely to report a lack of meaning. Of these, 68 per cent are looking for more flexible working, but many do not want to sacrifice their career prospects to achieve work-life balance.

When people experience a lack of meaning at work, they also tend to report a lack of trust in the integrity of their organisation and its leaders. Some believe their organisation’s corporate social responsibility policies are a sham, that senior managers do not ‘walk the talk’ on values, and that political behaviour is rife. They feel they are considered expendable, and say that their views are not heard.

Many want to work for a more ethical organisation; one where there is a better match between their values and those of the organisation, and they are prepared to consider self-employment if they can’t find a good match. Conversely, those who choose to stay are developing a more transactional approach towards their organisation, ‘trading down’ with regard to the time and effort they expend at work.

Employees in small organisations, especially those in the charity sector, tend to report a greater sense of meaning at work. This could be because they have greater access to what appears to be important elements for meaning: helping a customer, feeling engaged in some worthwhile mission and feeling part of a community involved in a valuable task. These aspects are more likely to encourage people to give their best, knowing they are making a difference.

How can HR help create more meaning at work?

Most people want to do a good job and have the chance to achieve. HR can ensure the workplace is safe and that people are equipped, trained and motivated. The research suggests that people feel highly motivated when they are working for a bigger cause, and when they can grow through their work.

HR can link with line managers to ensure that jobs are designed to provide challenges and a clear line of sight to the customer. They can help managers gain the coaching skills to provide on-the-job development, and can also help create a sense of belonging by building cross-functional and other forms of teamwork.

Moreover, HR can work with line managers to eliminate some of the barriers to meaning. This can be done by:

  • Ensuring workloads are reviewed to make them manageable, and that work-life balance policies are implemented

  • Helping line managers to build teams and deal constructively with conflict

  • Devising career tracks that do not penalise flexible working and recognise other forms of contribution

  • Supporting the development of volunteering, career breaks and other ways in which employees can contribute to the community and renew themselves.

HR should see the development of a high-performance, high-integrity organisation as its primary goal. It can do this by:

  • Ensuring the organisation selects and develops leaders who act ethically

  • Taking responsibility for leadership development and succession planning, helping senior managers become effective role models and developing a higher sense of purpose

  • Ensuring written values statements are reflected in the design of jobs, to maximise autonomy and fair promotion and reward

  • Challenging the alignment of corporate values statements, corporate social responsibility policies and managers’ behaviours and priorities

  • Helping to create meaning by making sure that communications are two-way, and that there is active workplace involvement by employees.

Above all, HR can role model good practice, for both individual high achievement and team excellence. It can ‘become the change they want to see’.

Through these steps, organisations can address some of the deeper personal and community needs of their employees. This can bring a bottom-line business impact, through improved staff retention rates, an enhanced ability to manage change, and a more customer-focused culture.

Linda Holbeche is director of research and strategy at Roffey Park. In Search of Meaning in the Workplace, by Linda Holbeche and Nigel Springett, is available from Roffey Park, priced £30, at

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