7k0a0071This week I am considering the passion compliance professionals have for our profession. On Monday I wrote about being passionate about working in the field of compliance. Yesterday, I looked at some of the research and theoretical underpinnings of why employees’ find particular work meaningful which can lead to having passion about one’s profession. Today, I want to consider what business leader do that makes work meaningless. This series is based, in part, on a Summer 2016 MIT Sloan Management Review article, entitled “What Makes Work Meaningful – Or Meaningless, by Catherine Bailey and Adrian Madden.

In addition to often destroying the confidence, if not psyche, of employees by making work meaningless, it has real consequences, such as reduced efficiency and motivation, reduced levels of employee engagement, increased absenteeism and an overall downgrade in employee work performance. The factors which created a sense of meaninglessness were quite separate and apart from those which created a sense of meaningfulness. The authors discuss seven separate “experiences that actively led people to ask, “Why am I doing this?” were generally a function of how people were treated by managers and leaders.”

  1. Disconnect people from their values

The authors report this is the number one problem for employees in destroying the meaning at their work, even if there is a dis-congruence between their personal values and that of the company. The biggest factor cited was the senior management and leadership pushing employees to lessen on quality and professionalism due to the company’s bottom line. But it is more than focusing on cutting your quality due to the almighty dollar but can be found when companies so poorly manage risks that they become paralyzed due to complete risk aversion. 

  1. Take your employees for granted

What does common courtesy cost? Nothing, yet the simplest acts of kindness your mother and grandmother taught you go a long way towards worker satisfaction. The authors noted that “Lack of recognition for hard work by organizational leaders was frequently cited as invoking a feeling of pointlessness.” They found groups as disparate as stone masons to university professors who all noted that the simple courtesy of being told a job was well done went a long way towards putting meaning in their jobs. One interviewee said that even having a boss say “Good Morning” was helpful in bringing meaning to a job. The authors concluded this element by stating “Feeling unrecognized, unacknowledged, and unappreciated by line or senior managers was often cited in the interviews as a major reason people found their work pointless.”

  1. Give employees pointless work to do

This element goes beyond simply work assignments as the authors found “that individuals had a strong sense of what their job should involve and how they should be spending their time, and that a feeling of meaninglessness arose when they were required to perform tasks that did not fit that sense.” Employees often know the best, most efficient way to accomplish a task and being told by an even well-meaning supervisor who does not know what he is doing can work to make a situation untenable. This also extends to multiple and contradictory assignments where employees are left to “pick up the pieces” of an uninformed management decision.

  1. Treat employees unfairly

The Fair Process Doctrine is alive and well in workplace satisfaction and meaningfulness as “Unfairness and injustice can make work feel meaningless.” The authors found that “Forms of unfairness ranged from distributive injustices”, where employees were told they could not have a pay raise for several years due to a shortage of money but observe senior managers granting themselves pay raises. The authors also noted that being treated unfairly encompassed “Procedural injustices included bullying and lack of opportunities for career progression.”

  1. Override your employees’ better judgment

The role a manger takes can go a very long way to supporting or denigrating how an employee feels about their job’s meaningfulness. As the authors said, “a sense of meaninglessness was connected with a feeling of disempowerment or disenfranchisement over how work was done.”

Therefore, this element is more than simply not acknowledging employees, it is not understanding what tools and talents your employees bring to your organization and how they want to use those talents. When you do not listen to what employees have to say or imply their experience and opinions do not matter, it is more likely employees will find their work meaningless. One interviewee told the authors “People can feel empowered or disempowered by the way you run things.”

  1. Disconnect employees from supportive relationship

Unsurprisingly, “Feelings of isolation or marginalization at work were linked with meaninglessness” and the authors wrote, “This could occur through deliberate ostracism on the part of managers, or just through feeling disconnected from coworkers and teams.” Most employees want to not only be an accepted part of a team but enjoy the camaraderie of working with co-workers towards a common goal. All of this adds to a sense of meaningfulness. I was somewhat surprised to find this element important even in entrepreneurs who reported in interviews “about their sense of loneliness and meaninglessness during the startup phase of their business, and the growing sense of meaningfulness that arose as the business developed and involved more people with whom they could share the successes.” 

  1. Put employees at risk of physical or emotional harm

I have worked in industries that involved safety risks, specifically in the Gulf Coast petro-chemical industry. I accepted these safety risks when I had such employment and as you might guess these risks were mitigated or managed by the company. However, when employees were exposed to such risks and had not accepted those risks or they were exposed to unnecessary risk it was often associated with loss of meaningfulness. This can be as simple as placing employees at physical or emotional risk from aggression to putting them in situations where they do not have the training to manage safely.

The authors concluded this section by writing “These seven destroyers emerged as highly damaging to an individual’s sense of his or her work as meaningful. When several of these factors were present, meaningfulness was considerably lower.” You should check to see if any of your leadership behaviors do or even could fall into one of these categories. Finally always remember that it does not cost you anything to be courteous.

Tomorrow I will consider how a business leader, including a Chief Compliance Officer (CCO), can cultivate an “ecosystem for meaningfulness.”


This publication contains general information only and is based on the experiences and research of the author. The author is not, by means of this publication, rendering business, legal advice, or other professional advice or services. This publication is not a substitute for such legal advice or services, nor should it be used as a basis for any decision or action that may affect your business. Before making any decision or taking any action that may affect your business, you should consult a qualified legal advisor. The author, his affiliates, and related entities shall not be responsible for any loss sustained by any person or entity that relies on this publication. The Author gives his permission to link, post, distribute, or reference this article for any lawful purpose, provided attribution is made to the author. The author can be reached at tfox@tfoxlaw.com.

© Thomas R. Fox, 2016