On finding meaning in our work

One of the worst jobs I ever had was in data entry. My sole task each day was to sit in front of a computer, sifting through files, pick out the appropriate details, which I then had to code and finally enter into a database system.

It was mind-blowingly boring and after a couple of weeks I was ready to commit Hari-Kari or pull my toe-nails out one by one, rather than face yet more tedious hours glued to a computer screen and a never ending stack of files. Moreover the pay was dreadful, which didn’t make the task any more appealing. But even if the pay had been great, I would not have chosen to stay.

Why? Because I saw no meaning to the work I was doing.

I consider myself incredibly blessed that over the course of my working career I have, for the vast majority of time found myself doing work I absolutely love. This has to be a good thing — because we spend an extraordinary amount of our life as adults doing work, earning a salary that pays the bills, feeds the kids and keeps a roof over our heads.

I recognise too that for some, there isn’t always a choice for the work they do. They might be in a job they loathe, with people they dislike but have to continue with it, because there simply is no option B.

What is it about our work that makes it fulfilling?  Which are the key components that keep drawing us back, wanting to continue, to contribute in some capacity?

There has been a considerable amount of research into this area and last week I had the pleasure of hearing Professor Michael Steger from Colorado State University talking about how he believes we can seek ways to find meaning, purpose and happiness at work. It is this pursuit that he sees as providing us purpose, which acts as a navigation tool for our lives, helping us to fathom out which direction to take.

He shared the story of the three stonemasons involved in building a cathedral as an example of how our perspective helps us to find that greater meaning.

A man saw three stonemasons working busily together and asked each one in turn what they were doing.

The first stonemason replied, “I turn big rocks into smaller rocks.” He was task orientated.

The second stonemason said, “I am feeding my family.” He was career orientated.

The third stonemason said, “I am building a cathedral.” He was working to a calling.

Having purpose provides us the why we do what we do, and it’s not about the money. Doing work we consider meaningful is strongly correlated to job satisfaction and starts with determining our strengths.

Doing meaningful works means you are/will be:

•    More committed to the organisation
•    Have lower intention to leave,
•    Clock up fewer days absent or sick
•    Be more willing to work discretionary work hours (i.e. for free)
•    Have more faith in management
•    Function better within teams

Dave and Wendy Ulrich in their book “The Why of Work” discuss how on an individual level those who understand their job’s greater purpose are happier, more engaged and more creative. From an organisation’s perspective this translates into lower staff turnover and increased productivity because people work harder, use their initiative and make good decisions.

If you are wondering how to get your employee to work harder, maybe you could ask the question “What are they getting out of it?” 

I have heard some criticism of our current Generation Y: that they aren’t interested in hard work or putting in the hard yards and have overinflated opinions of entitlement. That’s not been my observation by the way! I have seen many Gen Y’ers who are highly engaged, passionate and working very hard in their area of work.

 To examine whether that has any truth to it, the iOpener Institute recently undertook a study that asked Gen Y’s what does motivate them to work? The results revealed that Gen Y’ers are more motivated to do work that has a strong economic or social purpose. They are not primarily motivated by incremental pay rises (though happy to accept them if offered!).

In other words job fulfilment wins hands down over financial reward.

And this has been shown to be true cross-generationally.

I read recently that my favourite social cognitive neuroscientist on the planet, Professor Matt Lieberman (yes, I know I’ve mentioned him before) was recently offered a very lucrative deal (and we are talking several million dollars here) that would have provided a huge financial incentive and set him up very comfortably. The downside? He would have to leave his family, (his wife and 7 year old son) in the U.S and go to work in Moscow for four months, twice, over a two-year period.

Where in this instance the job or work itself would have been pretty much the same, here it was the social upheaval and separation from his family that was of greater importance to his self-fulfilment. He chose not to go.

But the type of work we do itself doesn’t have to be highbrow, Nobel Prize winning or especially different for us as individuals to find meaning. Though for myself I now know that data entry will always be a hard one for me to tackle.

How many people do you know, or have met, who may not have the best job in the world, but they love it and are passionate about their role?

For example a person undertaking what others might consider a menial job, such as being a cleaner in a hospital, or a sewage worker, can still find meaning in their work, if they see that their role contributes to the greater good of the organisation or society.

Taking pride in what you do makes you feel good about your job and contributes to wellbeing and happiness.

Finding the meaning in the work you do, provides that same sense of purpose. But it won’t necessarily just happen; it can take skill and practice to obtain.

If leaders genuinely want to see higher levels of engagement in their staff, getting them to work harder, for longer and more creatively, it all starts with helping them to see the bigger picture: providing the vision of what that future might look like and how they can contribute, tapping into the strengths and shared values that will engage hearts and heads.

Dan Ariely gave a great Ted talk on “Finding the meaning in our work” and shared some great examples from his research. He tells us that,

“Motivation to work = purpose that includes meaning, creativity, challenge, owner ship, identity and pride in what we do.”

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5aH2Ppjpcho?feature=oembed&wmode=opaque&enablejsapi=1]

Do you feel you have meaning in the work you do?
Is it something you have chosen, or nurtured, or was it simply something that grew out of your experiences?

If not, what could you do (if changing jobs is not an option) to try and find some sense of purpose that would make your daily efforts less of a grind and more of a purr.

Oh, and if your work is in data entry and you love it, congratulations. We do need data entry workers, it’s just that I obviously wasn’t cut out for that particular line of work.

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