Meaning in work is (not) required

The latest results of the Gallup survey – even there are voices of fair criticism towards its methodology – stay alarming: 16 percent of respondents are fully committed towards the organization’s goals, 67 percent merely work to rule, and 17 percent have mentally resigned.

Hence, the challenge of fostering employee engagement stays a critical point on the organization’s strategic agenda.

A study by Thomas Höge and Tatjana Schnell reveals, that engagement and meaning in work, referring to the subjective experience of meaningfulness in a particular work context, are strongly related.

Although meaning in work and work engagement are different constructs, which need to be distinguished from each other, the following can be stated: The more meaning in work is experienced, the deeper people are engaged. But what elements make work meaningful?

The experience of meaning in work can be defined as a cognitive evaluation of the coherence between work conditions and self-concept. Elements with high impact are the fit between professional role and self-concept, social relationships at the workplace, and a positive organizational climate. However, the most important predictor for experiencing meaningfulness at the workplace is, if someone considers his professional activities as being significant for others.

The results show, that organizations should pay more attention to the meaning in work. This does not only apply to scientific research but and mainly to operational life. But how can organizations and in particular managers support their employees in experiencing meaning in their particular work activities and its positive impact on others?

The results of a study from Adam Grant, expert in organizational psychology, can support in finding answers. He examined the success rate of call center employees in raising funds for scholarships. In this context it needs to be stated, that call center jobs are based on high standardization and tough performance controls. In our example the success rate was very low and the call center agents started to feel demotivated. For the research Grant created three groups: the first group met one of the scholarship student who talked firsthand five minutes about the importance of the work done for him and how it changed his life, the second group received a thank you letter, the third group did not have any contact to the students affected.

After four weeks the following happened:  the members of the first group raised the average time spent on the phone by 142 percent and increased there weakly revenue by 171 percent. The results achieved by the other groups did not change.

It is obvious that the increased success rate of one group is related to the fact, that the call center agents directly interacted with the recipient of the donation. In contrary to their colleagues they experienced the positive impact of their activity on the student and could see the meaning in their work.

läufer sinn 5Additional research support the key message: Radiologists who worked with files in which the patient’s photo was included achieved 46 percent higher diagnostic accuracy than those working with files without photos. Nurses being in direct contact with surgical teams completed more than twice as many surgical kits with fewer errors than their colleagues without exposure to the team.

Grant’s conclusion is simple:  Establishing a direct relationship to the end-customer can increase work engagement. He even suggests to „outsource the inspiration of employees” to the customer of the final product or services.

Today, organizations are asked to seriously consider the different aspects related to meaning in work as well as emotional matters of their employees.  For sure, employees can only individually decide for themselves, if they experience meaning in work. Still, organizations and managers are asked to strongly provide support. Finally it is not only a question of increasing engagement through strengthening meaning in work but also a matter of not loosing the (new) War for Hearts and Minds.

Höge, T. & Schnell, T. (2012). Kein Arbeitsengagement ohne Sinnerfüllung. Eine Studie zum Zusammenhang von Work Engagement, Sinnerfüllung und Tätigkeitsmerkmalen. Wirtschaftspsychologie,1, 91-99.

Schnell, T., Hoege, T., & Pollet, E. (2013). Predicting Meaning in Work: Theory, Data, Implications. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 8(6), 543-554.

Grant, A. (2014). “Outsource inspiration”. In Putting Positive Leadership in Action: Bringing Out the Best in Work Organizations, edited by Jane Dutton, Gretchen Spreitzer, (2014). 

| Authored by Katja Sandor-Hertel