What Does Your Work Mean to You?

This is the 100th post I’ve published so I thought I’d celebrate the occasion by writing about the meaning of work.

It’s a challenging task because what we call work
has changed dramatically in the last generation. Just as when the
factory was born, the technological revolution and globalization of the
last thirty years is transforming work and its meaning.

Work is still essentially defined as
“doing.” We still look for external results to define the success of our
work. While the concept of intrinsic reward is acknowledged as a useful
contributing component for the final work product, it still
isn’t considered as valuable in and of itself. This varies if we’re self
employed but the measurement of the value of our work is still largely
defined by the marketplace.

Hundreds of millions of us still toil at hard labor, often without rights,
benefits, decent working conditions and fair pay. How do these workers,
often working in the shadows, derive “meaning” from their work?

Tragically, too many workers in the 21st century are laboring in 19th
century conditions. In 2008, in the largest immigration raid in U.S.
history, officials swept into a meatpacking plant in Iowa and arrested
three hundred and eighty-nine workers. Fifty seven children, as young as
thirteen  were among those found working at the plant. Often working
seventeen hour shifts in close quarters with sharp knives, the workers
were earning $5 – $6 an hour.

In a more recent spotlight on worker abuse, the Oscar nominated film, The Help,
told the story of the plight of domestic workers in the pre-Civil
Rights era of the American South. While many facets of the interwoven
stories told in The Help are moving and inspiring, criticism of the
film’s omission of the rapes and sexual abuse many female domestics
endured is justified.

Before we comfort ourselves with thinking, “Thank goodness those days are over,” the often dangerous conditions that many hotel maids work under today got
major media attention in 2011 when former IMF chief, Dominique
Strauss-Kahn, was accused (charges were later dropped) of sexually
assaulting a hotel maid in his room.  

Speaking to the media after the Strauss-Kahn incident, Priscilla Gonzalez, director of the advocacy group, Domestic Workers United said, “It’s
absolutely no surprise that this happened. Being a historically
disenfranchised and devalued, invisible kind of work, people who work in
this industry do face a lot of forms of abuse and exploitation, sexual
abuse and harassment. The reality is that the women who do this work are
not seen; they’re not recognized. For every woman that comes forward
with a complaint, there are hundreds who don’t.”

With legislation passed in 2010, New York is the only state in the U.S. (a CA version is now pending)
that protects the rights of domestic workers, including nannies,
housekeepers and caregivers for the elderly (the fastest growing work
segment). And after 60 years of advocacy, the International  Labour
Organization (ILO) adopted a global convention outlining the fundamental
rights of domestic workers, which include 7.5 million mostly women
worldwide.  It’s widely assumed that the U.S. will never ratify this
because most U.S. labor laws are regulated by the states. This means
that the 2.5 million domestic workers in the other 48 states face a long
struggle to earn the most basic protections for their safety and
economic well-being.

What Does Meaning from Work Mean?

“Work is about a search for
daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash,
for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather
than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.”

Studs Terkel, author of the classic book, Working

Expecting meaning from work
within the context of the desperate working conditions outlined above
seems frivolous, at best, but we know that the search for meaning is as
old as the human story.  

Writing about work, Michael Steger, Director of the Laboratory for the Study of Meaning and Quality of Life says, “Few
other avenues offer as much promise for accomplishing valued outcomes
as creating meaning in work – both in terms of individual flourishing,
citizenship, commitment, and engagement in terms of long-term,
sustainable innovation, culture maintenance and permanency in

Dr. Steger’s cogent case for the
importance of the meaning of work holds powerful implications for
personal and institutional responsibilities to “make meaning.”
 Institutions, at the very least, must guarantee safe and decent work conditions with economic parity for workers in the 21st century. But that’s not enough.

In his Harvard Business Review article, Create a Meaningful Life through Meaningful Work, author Umair Haque writes, “Maybe
the real depression we’ve got to contend with isn’t merely one of how
much economic output we’re generating – but what we’re putting out there
and why. Call it a depression of human potential, a tale of human
insignificance being willfully squandered.”

Recent studies from research at
McKinsey conclude that providing meaningful work to employees was the
most important contributing factor to a high level of engagement. In her
book, The Progress Principle, author Teresa Amabile  reports that of
all the events that can deeply engage people in their work, the single
most important factor was meaningful work.  

Well practiced in “disengagement,”
leaders and organizations must learn which actions and conditions are
meaning killers and which bring energy and engagement to life. According
to Ms. Amabile, “Beyond
affecting the well-being of employees, research shows that the “inner
work life” affects the bottom line. People are more creative,
productive, committed and collegial in their jobs when they have
positive inner work lives. But it’s not just any sort of progress in
work that matters. The first and fundamental requirement is that work be
meaningful to the people doing it.”

There’s growing agreement about the types of ways leaders and workers at any level can create the conditions that inspire meaningful experience within the workplace:

  • Work to Build Trust – Why trust? Because everything that is meaningful about
    relationships relies on it. Trust is at historically low levels within
    institutions. Committing to building trust is critical to deepening
    meaningful experience
  • Build Quality Connection & Community – People want to believe and belong. Though cynicism is pervasive, most
    people want to feel part of something greater than their own ambition.
     Create the conditions for collaborative learning, problem solving and
    task implementation and you’ll advance meaning within any work
  • Help Others Develop
    Old competitive models that are characterized by hoarding information
    and power are dying a slow death. Your contribution to the development
    of others is a double-dip – your giving – they’re receiving and everyone
    has the opportunity to grow from the experience.
  • Focus on Strengths, Values and Differences
    Most workplaces still demand (implicitly and explicitly) too much
    conformity. The pressure to perform and conform has a chilling effect on
    honesty, contribution and creativity. Everyone in the room has
    something unique to contribute – help them find it and you will
    automatically enrich meaning.
  • Allow Honest and Open Expression of Feelings I’m
    still amazed of how frightening the thought of this is to so many
    managers. I think they imagine people all running amuck,  therapy
    sessions in cubicles and their darkest secrets being exposed. My
    experience is that most employees value honesty above all else in the
    workplace – and most of them don’t believe they can be truly honest
    where they work. This emotional straitjacket is what most workers are
    wearing as they make their way through the thicket of office politics.
    The exhausting charade that many workers must maintain hour after hour
    is one of the greatest meaning-killers on the list.
  • Encourage, Model and Reinforce Civility
    From where I sit, I can’t imagine working in some of the workplaces I
    hear about. Incivility takes many forms: use of inflammatory or
    derogatory language, rude behaviors, insensitivity, gossip and outright bullying.
    Your behavior is the only thing you have control over, so make it
    impeccable, especially if you are a leader. If you’re in a position to
    craft organizational policy to promote greater civility, do it. If not,
    create your own informal norms for communication, respect of other’s
    rights and privacy protections.
  • Create Time for Self-Reflection
    It’s difficult to find the value and meaning of experience if we don’t
    allow the time to self-reflect. This applies to teams, work groups and
    organizations as well.  This practice should be built into the fabric of
    our personal and organizational lives.

While our definitions of what
constitutes “meaningful work” may be in a state of flux, our search for
meaning continues. While we may not love our work or work for love there
should be nothing that dampens our desire and drive for meaning.
Meaning makes our life worthwhile. It is the great motivator.

Many of us have lowered the bar for
our own meaning. Too often we settle for a tasks-only orientation to our
work, barely stopping to consider the why of what we do. Finding
meaning in our work requires that we regularly step back and connect
what we value with what we do. This is true in any endeavor, but
especially important in our work.

Visioning the brave new world of meaning at work, author & poet David Whyte writes in his book, Crossing the Unknown Sea, Every
organization attempting to wake up to this newly youthful world is now
asking for qualities from its people that are touchstones of their
humanity. In order to get a real conversation with the world you have to
drop the artificial language, drop the politics and drop an environment
based on fear and hiding. People must be encouraged not only to know
their craft, their products, their work and the people they serve, but
to know a little of themselves. In order to respond to the world of
wants, they must know something of what they want and they do not want.”

Making meaning is work – but the possibilities are life-giving.

As always your comments, questions, subscriptions, shares and tweets are greatly appreciated!

Louise Altman, Partner, Intentional Communication

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