Meaning & Purpose At Work

My earliest existential crisis occurred at age ten, when I started seriously staring down the barrel of my own mortality in the face of Jesus’ imminent return. It was the early 90’s, and the protestants were laughing-crying-falling-over through their rapturous revivals, convinced that we were all shortly to cast off our mortal shells in favour of glory, and that was the family context that I grew up in. I remember hoping that Jesus would hold off long enough for me to get a bra, so I could, at least, experience some semblance of womanhood before I was transformed into a gender-neutral heavenly being (or something like that… my ten year old self wasn’t quite sure what was meant to happen next).

The vague sense of my impending death never really went away, even when Jesus didn’t turn up as predicted, and Y2K didn’t spell the end of the world, or when the Mayan apocalypse that I heard about in my year ten social studies class didn’t occur on 21 December 2012 as slated. I remember the day after that one, realising that I hadn’t banked on life past age 27… all of the five year plans I had created since that social studies class (they were my attempts to maximise the output of my inevitably short life) had stopped there. There was a brief high on realising that I wasn’t going to prematurely die, followed by multiple years spent undoing all of the conditioning that got me there in the first place.

Needless to say, over my time I’ve thought a lot about the meaning of life, or, as I think about it these days, how to create a meaningful life. I’m sure it goes without saying that while there may be broad similarities between what feels meaningful for people, we should assume that each person will have a completely individualised response to what a meaningful life would be for them. But I think all people care about questions of meaning, even if they don’t spend too much time thinking explicitly about it. No one wants to feel like their life doesn’t - or, didn’t - matter. No one wants to get to the end and regret what was.

So, what does this have to do with work? Well, unless you’re one of the very few people who don’t need to earn a living, work is the thing that we all share. It characterises our adult lives. It is the vehicle that we get from twenty to sixty-five (thereabouts) through. Our most stunning strengths, and our worst weaknesses, can be expressed through it. Some of us experience it as an unavoidable reality that we don’t care too much about, and, at the other extreme, others of us give it 110% and have a lot of our self-worth wrapped up in it. Regardless of how we relate to it, it’s taking up a huge portion of our lives, and thus is a significant factor in our wellness, our life’s story and legacy, and our sense of how meaningful - or otherwise - our life is.  

I personally believe that work can be a deeply meaningful exercise through which people can find self-knowledge and experience purpose beyond a pay cheque. That said, it can also be the exact opposite, and we see that too often: work and workplaces that demotivate, demoralize, and destroy people’s sense of connection and contribution and purpose. What we also see is the difference in productivity and output that a human being who really enjoys their work and workplace has, in comparison to a human being that doesn’t enjoy their work or who is running the gauntlet of a dysfunctional workplace.

The corporate search for profit and man’s search for meaning can be highly synergistic, and should be leveraged. A smart organisation recognises that there will be a direct, positive impact on its bottom line when it invests resources into creating a workplace where people can experience meaning and purpose in their work. 

That said, let’s be very clear: this isn’t as easy as giving people a wellness app and a few company-sponsored yoga sessions. This isn’t about beanbags and pie. This isn’t about a rebrand or a new set of values plastered on the wall. The image that keeps springing to mind is the oft-quoted (but apparently fictitious) instance of Marie Antoinette, in response to the starving, rioting masses, saying ‘let them eat cake’. But the people were hungry for so much more than food, and, in our organisations, people are hungry for so much more than perks. They’re hungry for a good life. They’re hungry for a sense of belonging. They’re hungry for integrity, and purpose and connection and the opportunity to genuinely contribute. They’re hungry for meaning.

So how does an organisation go about creating an environment where people can experience meaningful work? This is a huge topic, obviously... but here are a few (by no means exhaustive) thoughts from me:

  1. Organisations are, firstly and fundamentally, collections of human beings working together in a particular configuration and with particular tools, for the achievement of a particular purpose. As such, the framework of the organisation needs to be designed on a profound understanding of, and acceptance of, human nature. Too many organisations are built as if they had predictable machines working in them, rather than the wild art that is humanity. You need a structure that can flex, to accommodate the genius that people will bring to their work if you let them.
  2. You need a psychologically high-functioning leader (like, serious EQ) with a radical commitment to creating a psychologically safe environment. But that leader can’t just be great at the human stuff - they also need the ability to marry what they know about human nature and needs, with what they know about running high performing businesses. That's a unique individual.
  3. The organisation needs to be designed to continuously but purposefully adapt - to evolve in sync with the world it operates in and with the humans that are operating within it. Too often I see companies undertaking revolutions - that is, drastic change and transformation programs - to keep up with change in the market, rather than having a way of continuously evolving. The problem with revolutions is that you’re almost immediately out of date (as soon as the program is complete), and they’re also highly disruptive (people will get change fatigue).
  4. A strengths-based approach gets awesome outcomes. Don't put people into roles that they don't have the strengths for, because they - and everyone around them - will be made miserable. Check out Gallup or Via Character Strengths for two different approaches to this.
  5. Prioritise clarity (see this article for what I think that looks like).
  6. Prioritise connection. Human beings are social animals, and are wired to bond. Create ways for people to do that authentically and safely.

I'd love to hear your thoughts! What do you think an organisation could do or provide that would enhance people's experience of meaningfulness?

Anna Stanford