The Seven Deadly Sins of Work Meaninglessness

In the early 1960s one of my esteemed mentors recommended Viktor Frankl’s magnificent little book (160 pages), Man’s Search for Meaning. Published in 1959, Amazon still lists it as a best seller. Just reading that little book brought about what’s today called a paradigm shift. Prior to that experience I naively thought that happiness was the be-all, end-all. But after a lot of interactions over that Holocaust memoir, I realized (decided?) meaning is so strong, that even in the concentration camps, people sought out their purpose in life. 

So it is not a surprise that meaningful work is something we all want. Indeed, the latest research has shown meaningfulness to be the most important characteristic of a job. More important than pay and rewards, opportunities for promotion or working conditions.

So what do we know about meaningfulness and meaninglessness? A recent study by Catherine Bailey and Adrian Madden in the MIT Sloan Review looked at the factors that create or destroy a sense of meaning in the workplace. Their study surfaced three major findings:

-Meaningfulness at work tends to be something employees discover for themselves.
–Meaninglessness at work is often a result of how employees are treated.
–The challenge for leaders is to create an environment conducive to meaningfulness.

The research revealed that when people find work meaningful, it’s almost never because of their leaders and managers. In contrast, when work is meaningless, it’s usually because of managers and leaders. The research base was fairly solid, and included interviews with 135 people in 10 very different occupations. They used stories and incidents from the interviewees as the basis for their conclusions. The study revealed a number of factors that destroy the fragile sense of meaningfulness individuals find in their work.

Seven deadly sins of meaningless
Though meaninglessness is not clearly defined, the researchers seem to refer to work that is futile, wasted, purposeless, having no significance or importance. Their metaphor of seven deadly sins comes from Thomas Aquinas, the christian scholar of the 13th century who contrasted certain sins to the great religious virtues. Meaningful work is a business topic that is rightly receiving new attention in the knowledge era.

The authors listed the “sins” in order from most to least grievous:

Disconnect people from their values. Most people framed this issue as a contrast between their own values and the values of their employer. This single issue was raised more than any of the other six “sins.” The tension was often between the company’s bottom line and the employee’s values.

Take your employees for granted. Lack of recognition isn’t merely a problem for millennials. In sum, the issues were feeling “unrecognized, unacknowledged and unappreciated.” The negative performance impact is obvious.

Give people pointless work to do. One of the more intriguing findings is that most employees have a strong sense of what their job should entail and how they should be spending their time. The conflicts arose when the work an employee is given does not fit that personal sense.

Treat people unfairly. Unfairness and injustice often makes work feel meaningless. The research found that issues of distributive injustice (not being treated equal to a peer) as well as being asked to do jobs that are not part of one’s role without any reward.

Override people’s better judgment. The sense of meaningless is often connected with feelings of disempowerment over how work is to be done. And disempowerment is readily connected to the way companies run things. For example, when people are not being listened to or that their opinions and experience do not count, inevitably the sense of disempowerment takes over.

Disconnect people from supportive relationships. The study revealed that feelings of isolation or marginalization were also linked with meaningless. Sometimes managers or a work team deliberately ostracize people. The study strongly emphasized the importance of relationships for a sense of meaningfulness.

Put people at risk of physical or emotional harm. Finally, the study showed that what employees termed as unnecessary risk, either physical or emotional, results in the sense of meaningless. However, when employees understand the risks they may be exposed to many can understand and appreciate their choices of risk.

A personal caveat. It should be clear that what’s meaningful to one isn’t meaningful to another. And what’s frustrating and pointless to one is not to another. In contrast to only a few professionals, the great mass of workers have limited choices in their vocation. Indeed, my consulting interactions, even with managers and executives, resonates strongly with these findings.

Furthermore, though the authors never state this, all jobs and vocations have meaningless tasks. That goes with the territory. However, it’s also true that reframing these necessary, meaningless tasks can take out at least some of the sting. For example, as a consultant many of my required administrative and financial tasks are meaningless. I’ve reframed them as merely “dues paying.” The language comes out of my brief union experience and refers to the fact that in order for members to receive certain rewards, such as vacation, health care and raises, dues are required to support the union management. Dues paying also applies to membership in most organizations that respond with some form of payback.

Some would say that’s merely word-play. On the contrary, words can have force and provide different lens which can also shift implications. The shift from meaningless work to dues-paying is a shift of reality, resulting in changed attitudes and behavior.

The benefits for individuals–and organizations–that surface from meaningful workplaces can be immense. As Bailey and Madden comment, organizations that succeed in this are more likely to attract, retain and motivate the employees they need to build sustainably for the future.  One step to their creation is understanding the seven deadly sins that get in the way. What makes for a highly meaningful workplace is not merely the excision of these sins, but that’s still another blog.


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