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Meaningful Work

My intrepid friend Martin Couzins is often to be found out and about at various events and conferences, thinking interesting things, asking interesting questions. I spotted this on his Twitter timeline recently:

The term ‘meaningful work’ being talked about a lot at #HRSS16 ~ are lots of people doing work that isn’t?

My thought, and response to Martin was:

Meaningful to whom? Most work is coercive, make it coactive, it may generate more personal meaning.

Owen Ferguson added:

Meaning is in the eye of the beholder

To which Martin replied:

Yes, do people talk about their work in this way vs other areas of their lives? Who knows?! Does it need to be meaningful?

Back in the Middle Ages, I had a student job, working in the fruit and veg department in Sainsbury’s. At the time, shoppers bagged their produce, and brought it to a member of staff, who weighed it, sealed it and priced it, then gave it back to the shopper who would pay for the goods along with everything else, when they got to the till. I used to love this part of the job. I set the work out in my head as a series of challenges, which included having conversation with the customer (if they appeared to want to), making the seal on the bag as neat as I could (which was a struggle with the cranky old machine we used), and moving the queue along as quickly as possible.

Was this work meaningful? No. I do not believe I was put on this planet to achieve my own, self imposed nerdy customer service challenges. However the choices I made helped to pass the time, which was beneficial to me, and helped the customer get served well and quickly, which was beneficial to them. I accept that I derived satisfaction from a job well done, and my primary purpose for doing the work was to get paid so I could save up for something useful have a social life. I also remember that Graham and Steve (the department manager and assistant manager) were great fun, and did what they could to make work enjoyable. That helped at the time, and the fact that I can recall their names in an instant, after so many years, is worth noting.

Within the HR conference environment, meaning gets talked about a lot. As an example, I doodled this sketch note after attending the 2014 Meaning conference.

My attempt to capture a sense of Meaning 2014 -based on my own reflections and some tweets I spotted. I sketched this on the train on the way home.My attempt to capture a sense of Meaning 2014 -based on my own reflections and some tweets I spotted. I sketched this on the train on the way home.

For many people, I’m not sure how much the idea of meaning relates to their day to day work. I’ve worked in lots of operational environments where the lofty concept of meaning, is frankly meaningless. I’m struggling to recall the last time a client asked me to help them ‘find meaning’ in their work, yet I am guilty at times, of helping people to seek it out. Am I asking the wrong questions of the people I work with? Look again at Owen and Martin’s comments. ‘Meaning is in the eye of the beholder’. ‘Does it [work] have to be meaningful?’.

i recall a section of Dr Ken Robinson’s book, ‘The Element : How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything’, where he writes that many people do their work to sustain something more enjoyable/useful/maybe even meaningful, beyond the work they do. And that’s OK. I see that having a clear understanding of how my role fits into the bigger picture is really important. If I know:

  • Why I’m doing the task
  • what impact it has on our goal
  • and I support the goal
  • and feel I am able to cocreate it as well as contribute to it…

That is powerful. That sequence is also, in my experience, quite unusual. As a series of steps, this may not appear as seductive as a powerfully crafted, conference presentation about the search for meaning, yet in practice it may actually be much more meaningful.

I shared a draft of this post with Martin and Owen and invited them to comment. Here are their reflections – first Owen, then Martin.

“Thanks, Doug. It’s a thought provoking post and explores an area I think is particularly interesting at this point in the history of the “developed world”. To what extent could the search for meaningful work devalue satisfaction, contentment and happiness with a job? We can’t all be doctors for Médecins Sans Frontières. And sometimes meaningful work is disguised through years of abstraction. Banking used to be a noble profession that helped grease the gears of the economy and, perhaps more meaningfully, help new parents buy a new home sooner than they would have otherwise. As you can see, your post has already spurred more thought for me and I’m sure it will for others. Which is hopefully meaningful for you 🙂

“I really like what you have created here, Doug. I’m still not sure what meaning at/through work is. Is it about developing your sense of self as a person, making friends, making money to do other more meaningful things in life, getting personal joy from achieving things? Maybe it is all of this. But can employers make work meaningful – I don’t know? I like your thinking on this Owen and agree that this is an interesting time to be thinking about such things. I’m just thinking more on this and am enjoying the conversation and what has come out of it!”

This is the second time in recent weeks I’ve invited and sought feedback in the process of writing a post. I’m enjoying how this is currently working – it broadens my thinking, and reminds me of the importance of other perspectives too. If this subject resonates with you too – feel free to add to the mix.

More to follow…

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