Working for a company with the tagline “Extraordinary Experiences for Good” prompts vibrant discussions about meaningful work. We all spend a lot of time at our jobs and some of us have been fortunate over the course of a career to have experienced the pleasure of meaningful, gratifying labor.
We all want meaningful and purposeful work—Millennials, Boomers, and Gen-Xers alike. But what is that and how do we achieve it?
A recently published research study from MITSloan Management Review, “What Makes Work Meaningful—and Meaningless” is a thoughtful read on the topic. More than 130 people in 10 widely differing occupational groups were interviewed, sharing stories about times when they found their work meaningful as well as times when they asked themselves, “What is the point of doing this job?”
The researchers found that creative, absorbing, and interesting endeavors combined with praise and recognition are important, but not enough to make work meaningful. So what does makes work meaningful? These are five qualities uncovered in this research defining meaningfulness in our careers:
1. Being part of something bigger than yourself
Seeing the experiences you deliver and the work that you do as part of a larger tapestry that serves the needs and desires of others reinforces your bond to the work. Feeling part of a larger picture that benefits a community beyond yourself can provide the energy to deal with the stress and challenges of work and a degree of insulation from fatigue and burnout.
2. Managing challenges
We all have great stories of challenges overcome in the course of delivering meetings and incentives—the event that suddenly had to be re-imagined due to an incoming hurricane; the fastidious client won over; the program changes due to events out of our control but for which we are still held accountable because the show must go on. Contrary to what the researchers expected, moments of meaningfulness were not always positive or euphoric, but rather the result of coping with challenging conditions or solving complex problems. These challenging situations tended to yield far richer experiences than simply feeling motivated, engaged, or happy.
3. Recognizing the peaks and valleys
No one finds their work meaningful all the time. In fact, the purpose and meaning in our work may be experienced only intermittently in the course of a career. For me, creating a moment of sheer surprise and delight—that Bollywood troupe hired at the last minute who create a sensation the moment they enter the ballroom or seeing a team working together on a program like a finely tuned orchestra—keeps me connected and gives meaning to the long hours of work and effort invested.
4. Taking time to reflect
So often we move swiftly from one project to the next without truly appreciating or reflecting upon where we are and what we have accomplished. Taking time to ruminate on the memories you created for your audiences, the effect you had on a colleague, the successes of your teams and your business, helps to uncover the full significance of your contributions and connect you more closely to the purpose of the work.
5. Making it personal
There are few things better than the feeling of a job well done, especially when it is experienced and shared with the audiences you care most about—clients, colleagues, friends and family. Moments when you realize that your unique contribution is recognized and appreciated by the people who matter the most to you create a connection between your work and the wider context of your life experience.
Developing an ecosystem in which a sense of meaningfulness can thrive is a key leadership challenge—for our teams, our customers, and for ourselves. Finding the purpose within the work is a key element for me in bringing meaning to the daily crush of deadlines and meetings. The purpose provides momentum to the work of creating aspirational and authentic experiences for my audiences and fuels internal drive and motivation.
What makes work meaningful to you? Is this the most meaningful work you could be doing with your skills in this economy at this moment? Are you cultivating the many sides of who you are in the work you are doing now?
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