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Are You Actively Engaged at Work? Willing Your Own Professional Meaning


I read with great interest an article by Adam Grant, a Wharton professor, titled, “The #1 Feature of a Meaningless Job”.[1]  Professor Grant points to research that reminds us that people want meaningful jobs that contribute to something worthwhile. Moreover, he states a well-known fact for those of us with many years of work experience in Human Resources and particularly fields such as I/O Psychology, “we know that people struggle to find meaning when they lack autonomy, variety, challenge, performance feedback, and the chance to work for a whole product or service from start to finish.”

Further, Professor Grant offers that what meaningful jobs have in common is the fact

that they make a positive difference in other people’s lives. He adds that there is credible research to support this innate human need to make a positive difference.  Professor Grant’s article states:

  1. “the single strongest predictor of meaningfulness was the belief that the job had a positive impact on others”

  2. Of a sample of interviewed Americans, “more than half reported that the core purpose of their jobs was to benefit others”

  3. “On multiple continents, people defined work more in terms of contributing to society than as getting paid for a task, doing a strenuous activity, or being told what to do.”

  4. “Yale professor Amy Wrzesniewski who is widely regarded as the world’s leading expert on the meaning of work, shows that a core element of a calling is the belief that your work makes the world a better place.”

This is another excellent reminder to organizational leaders that they can take meaningful steps to create motivational conditions to engage their workforce.  As we are reminded by Professor Grant, we have known these facts for decades; and despite this knowledge being available the problem of disengagement stubbornly persists. If we are to trust the lessons of history, we have to face the possibility that this problem of being able to create meaningful conditions at work will continue to persist in many organizations.

One case in point is that while it is true “that people struggle to find meaning when they lack autonomy, variety, challenge, performance feedback, and the chance to work for a whole product or service from start to finish,” the engagement problem has not and will not be solved just through empirical-based perfunctory interventions and solutions.  Our experience has taught us — and backed by hard evidence — that solutions lacking a logoteleological approach will continue to fail or at best be partially effective.

Don’t Hold Your Breath

“If history repeats itself, and the unexpected always happens, how incapable must Man be of learning from experience.” George Bernard Shaw

If you have a meaningful job, you are fortunate. According to multiple reputable sources, people who have a meaningful job are in the minority. Gallup, for instance, shows that 30% of the American workforce is engaged and find meaning at work. The unfortunate remaining 70% or 70 million of the American workforce – are either actively disengaged (20%) or not engaged (50%). The costs and waste of this choice is monumental – estimated to be between $450 billion to $550 billion annually.[2]  Yet, we in the United States of America are the lucky ones. In other countries, the statistics are even worse.[3]  For the most part, the engagement trends continue to remain flat. So what can those individuals in the disengaged and actively disengaged category around the world do? Some companies, to their credit, are attempting to build more meaning into their work cultures. But will their meaning be your meaning? Let us hope so. But in case it is not, there are a few things Meaningful Purpose Psychology suggests you do to bring more meaningfulness into your life.

Self-determined Meaning

  1. Take control, don’t wait for others. If you are going to live a meaningful life and experience a meaningful career or vocation, determine that it is you – not your company or your boss or anyone else – who must decide to live and work meaningfully. A while ago I learned that abdicating to others the ability to make a positive difference in people’s life is a mistake. So take control of your destiny and don’t wait for the head shakers.

  2. Start with a Meaningful Life Purpose. Your career or vocation should be the means to express your life purpose, not the other way around. People who make jobs their life purpose live a narrow and myopic existence. They end up being extrinsically driven by work, rather than pulled or intrinsically motivated by work. There is much more to life than work – especially when it is experienced as meaningless. Start by detecting the meaning of your life, and then select a fitting career filled with meaning to fulfill it. If you need assistance in defining a meaningful life purpose you can read my book, The Path to a Meaningful Purpose, and benefit from our coaching and learning services.

An unbiased observation of what goes on in man when he is oriented toward meaning would reveal the fundamental difference between being driven to something on the one hand and striving for something in another. — Viktor Frankl

3.  Be meaningful. Regardless of your boss and company’s ability to create meaningful conditions, you owe it to yourself and those who depend on you to perform to the best of your abilities, and with the right attitude. Since you are being paid for your services, be responsible and act meaningfully. Aim to do work so that others experience meaningfulness. Build the habit of having a positive impact on others. Your firm’s leadership incompetence and unwillingness to create for you and others meaningful conditions is not an excuse to imitate them. Being meaningful takes courage. Being meaningful means standing for something positive and worthwhile. Be meaningful.

4.  Plan entry and exit strategies.  What if you find yourself on a meaningless and hopeless work situation that you know it is not going to improve? You can then design and implement what I call an “Entry Strategy” or a plan to strengthen your attitude and competencies (your meaningfulness) in preparation for a future more meaningful work environment. Study and prepare yourself well. Build your skills in order to have a positive or meaningful impact using your passions and strengths. Search and apply for work at companies that have meaningful cultures or start your own meaningful firm. Learn strategies and build competencies to land the right job or — as I gladly did — to start your own dream company. Your Entry Strategy will lead to a graceful “Exit Strategy” from your meaningless work environment. The point and my recommendation is that you don’t leave to “run away” from a bad environment. Rather, prepare to “move toward” a meaningful environment. The first is reactive and driven; the second is carefully and deliberately planned and willed. Reacting can potentially lead to another meaningless situation.

5. Surround yourself with meaningful, positive and supportive people. Another lesson I learned throughout the years is that it is important to seek and build relationships with positive people who genuinely practice cooperation and synergy. These people are the encouragers who feed on one another toward excellence. There will be people who show unconditional faith and offer support, and those whom I have labeled as head shakers – the discouragers and indifferent types. We all have encountered these characters in life or have been guilty of being a head shaker ourselves. So pick your friends carefully and form meaningful communities with the enablers. Make sure your own behavior is meaningful by encouraging others. Don’t imitate the meaningless.

Meaningful Purpose Psychology is an optimistic and pragmatic science that believes people should enjoy a rich and meaningful life. This meaningful experience should also be felt at work. Too many people in management positions at all levels are failing to live a meaningful life themselves. This failure ultimately shows up on how they lead and manage at work, dragging others – 70 percent of the American workforce and even with worse statistics in other countries — into their meaningless state. We, at the Boston Institute for Meaningful Purpose, are committed to enabling people and organizations to succeed in their meaningful purpose. We look forward to partner with you to make life and work environments meaningfully rich, actively engaging, and profitable.

© 2014. Luis A. Marrero. Boston Institute for Meaningful Purpose.


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