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A Hitchhiker’s Guide to a Small Part of the Meaningfulness Galaxy

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By Tom Brennan, Senior Writer

The Meaning of Meaningfulness at Work

Meaningfulness at work emerged as a hot subject in the mid-1990s, although organizational theorists have been writing about it since at least the 1920s. This post is a small scratch on the surface of a broad topic, but if you are interested in exploring the subject further, this will give you some ideas about where to start.

Most authors define meaningfulness at work in altruistic terms, along the same lines as organizational development consultant Scott Constantine: “Meaningfulness comes from contributing to something worthwhile, feeling valuable and valued, feeling able to give to and receive from one’s work, and feeling able to give to and receive from others in the course of work.”

Come to the Vague Side . . . or Not

At least one group of authors, however, wants us to recognize that some find meaning in values that are less humanitarian. B. J. Dik et. al. give the example of someone driven by the desire to amass power and wealth. Of course, you want to hire sales professionals who find meaning in exceeding revenue targets, but that’s not the same as hiring megalomaniacs. So meaningfulness can be a little vague.

The conversation becomes a little more focused and practical when we cast it in terms of employee engagement. Crim and Seijts provide a very readable overview of employee engagement in “What Engages Employees the Most or, The Ten C’s of Employee Engagement”.  The C’s, by the way, include things like Connect, Clarity, Congratulate and Contribute. 

So What’s the Big Deal?

Most of us have an intuitive sense that meaningfulness and engagement are important. Without reading blogs or articles, most agree with Confucius’ famous 2500-year-old dictum: “Choose a job you love and you will never have to work a day in your life.”

But let’s put some facts behind our intuition. According to a survey of business leaders by the Harvard Business Review (HBR), “71% of respondents rank employee engagement as very important to achieving overall organizational success.”  In contrast, only “24% of respondents say employees in their organization are highly engaged.” That kind of gap demands a response.

An even stronger call to action comes from the National Business Research Institute: only 8% of employees they surveyed are content to stay in their current job. The rest are inclined, to one extent or another, to leave, with a whopping 55% responding that they definitely will leave their current job in the near future.

Engage ‘Em or Lose ‘Em

So what can you do? In fact, there are plenty of programs and consultants offering practical strategies, including the Gallup Employee Engagement Center,,, and others. An article on even recommends action to avoid, so that you don’t unwittingly undermine meaningfulness.

Promoting meaningfulness doesn’t have to be expensive: the HBR survey found that “72% of respondents rank recognition given for high performers as having a significant impact on employee engagement.” According to the National Business Research Institute, pay raises increase performance by 30%. But the study didn’t say how long the increased performance lasted. Far be it for me to argue against pay raises, but employee engagement seems to be a deeper, longer-term solution.

One of the better-known approaches to promoting engagement comes from job characteristic theory, defined by Hackman and Oldman in Work Redesign (Addison-Wesley, 1980). This theory offers a framework for enhancing motivation, satisfaction and performance. Another strategy is to hire for engagement. Woods and Sofat assert that certain personality traits, particularly assertiveness and industriousness, are strong predictors of employee engagement.

Well, just as we’re getting up to steam we’ve run out of space. What are your thoughts on meaningfulness and engagement? What have you tried that’s worked? Share with us!

To learn more about Decision Toolbox, contact us – we’d love to hear from you!

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2 Responses to “A Hitchhiker’s Guide to a Small Part of the Meaningfulness Galaxy”

  1. May 22, 2014 at 9:24 am, Meaningfulness at Work: A Personal Journey | DecisionToolbox said:

    […] A Hitchhiker’s Guide to a Small Part of the Meaningfulness Galaxy Meaningfulness at Work: Find Your Sense of Purpose, Love Your Work Don’t Dream of a Meaningful Job — Demand It Meaningful Work: Change Your Attitude or Change Your Job […]


  2. May 22, 2014 at 9:47 am, Understanding What is Meaningful: Life as a Spreadsheet | DecisionToolbox said:

    […] at Work: A Personal Journey A Hitchhiker’s Guide to a Small Part of the Meaningfulness Galaxy Meaningfulness at Work: Find Your Sense of Purpose, Love Your Work Don’t Dream of a Meaningful Job […]


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