IMG_3310Yesterday I wrote about my passion for the compliance profession and why, in many ways, I feel privileged to work in this field. Based on the comments I received, many others feel the same way about working in compliance; there is a real sense of making a difference because of what we do. I was therefore intrigued when I read a piece in the Summer 2016 edition of the MIT Sloan Management Review, entitled “What Makes Work Meaningful – Or Meaninglessby Catherine Bailey and Adrian Madden. The article summarized the authors’ research into what gives work meaning and, equally importantly, common management errors that can leave employees feeling their work is meaningless. This spurred me to write a multi-part series on why working in compliance is meaningful. Today I will focus on what the authors call “The five qualities of meaningful work.”

Initially the authors note “researchers have shown meaningfulness to be more important to employees than any other aspect of work, including pay and rewards, opportunities for promotion, or working conditions. Meaningful work can be highly motivational, leading to improved performance, commitment, and satisfaction.” The authors interviewed some 135 employees in 10 different industries. Their findings were different than they had initially postulated.

The first difference was around leadership. They had expected to find “meaningfulness experienced by employees in relation to their work was clearly associated with actions taken by managers, such that, for example, transformational leaders would have followers who found their work meaningful, whereas transactional leaders would not.” However, their research turned up the opposite, demonstrating “quality of leadership received virtually no mention when people described meaningful moments at work, but poor management was the top destroyer of meaningfulness.”

The second unexpected find was around factors leading to meaningfulness and those which led to dissatisfaction. The authors had expected they would be the same or at least similar factors. They found that meaningfulness was largely driven by employees themselves while dissatisfaction arose from others. The authors wrote, “Whereas our interviewees tended to find meaningfulness for themselves rather than it being mandated by their managers, we discovered that if employers want to destroy that sense of meaningfulness, that was far more easily achieved. The feeling of “Why am I bothering to do this?” strikes people the instant a meaningless moment arises, and it strikes people hard. If meaningfulness is a delicate flower that requires careful nurturing, think of someone trampling over that flower in a pair of steel-toed boots. Avoiding the destruction of meaning while nurturing an ecosystem generative of feelings of meaningfulness emerged as the key leadership challenge.”

Finally, the authors determined meaningfulness in a person’s job was found from the shop floor to the Board room. Yet they found it was more than simply absorbing work or receiving praise for a job well done which motivated employees. The authors developed five factors which they intoned “might explain the fragile and intangible nature of meaningfulness” in the workplace.

  1. Self-transcendent

Here the authors found that work was meaningful for employees who believed that their occupation mattered for more than simply themselves. The authors noted, “People did not just talk about themselves when they talked about meaningful work; they talked about the impact or relevance their work had for other individuals, groups, or the wider environment.” They provided three examples. First a garbage collector who found his work meaningful when refuse was sent to recycling and he saw how his work contributed to creating a clean environment. The second was a professor who “found her work meaningful when she saw her students graduate at the commencement ceremony”. Finally, was an employee who found meaning in “bringing an entire community together around the common goal of a church restoration project.”

  1. Poignant

This was an interesting point because the authors found that people who found work meaningful did not always have a sense of joy or even happiness around their job. The authors found “those moments when people found their work meaningful tended to be far richer and more challenging than times when they felt simply motivated, engaged, or happy.” They gave the examples of nurses who “found meaningfulness when they were able to use their professional skills and knowledge to ease the passing of patients at the end of their lives.” They also found a large group of employees who “found moments of meaningfulness when they had triumphed in difficult circumstances or had solved a complex, intractable problem. The experience of coping with these challenging conditions led to a sense of meaningfulness far greater than they would have experienced dealing with straightforward, everyday situations.”

  1. Episodic

Meaningfulness tends to be episodic rather than consistent. The authors labeled these as “peak experiences” which are profound in the working environment. These peak experiences are not sustainable day in and day out; yet they “have a profound effect on individuals, are highly memorable, and become part of their life narratives.” Such moments are usually not forced or even driven by leaders or managers. On this point the authors concluded the peak “moments such as these contain high levels of emotion and personal relevance, and thus become redolent of the symbolic meaningfulness of work.”

  1. Reflective

The authors found that “meaningfulness was “rarely experienced in the moment, but rather in retrospect and on reflection when people were able to see their completed work and make connections between their achievements and a wider sense of life meaning.”” It can come when one looks back on a specific job that was well done or even consider a career or parts of a career in the sweep of an employee’s tenure. The authors said, “The experience of meaningfulness is therefore often a thoughtful, retrospective act rather than just a spontaneous emotional response in the moment, although people may be aware of a rush of good feelings at the time. You are unlikely to witness someone talking about how meaningful they find their job during their working day.”

  1. Personal

The authors found feelings of meaningfulness tend to be intensely personal and therefore not relating to the company leadership or their manager. They stated this feature “of meaningful work suggest that the organizational task of helping people find meaning in their work is complex and profound, going far beyond the relative superficialities of satisfaction or engagement”. It also explains that meaningfulness extends past the specific duties or even job functions to an individual’s life experiences. There is the reflective component of Point 4 above, but it usually ties into the values the individual holds when a sense that a job has been well done and well received by others.

Do any of these five elements apply to you and your work in the compliance field? If so it may help explain why you find your work so meaningful.


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© Thomas R. Fox, 2016