IMG_3310The week I am considering the passion compliance professionals have for our profession. Yesterday, I considered what business leader can do that makes work meaningless. Today, I want to detail what a business leader, including a Chief Compliance Officer (CCO), can do to create a companywide ecosystem to facilitate meaningfulness. This series is based, in part, upon a Summer 2016 edition of the MIT Sloan Management Review article, entitled “What Makes Work Meaningful – Or Meaningless, by Catherine Bailey and Adrian Madden.

As we have noted over the prior blog posts, most often job meaningfulness comes from within, while meaninglessness is often from the actions of management or leaders. The question becomes what can an organization do to foster meaningfulness in the face of these disparate relationships? First it can stop or not engage in some or all of the behaviors I discussed yesterday, the “seven deadly sins that drive up levels of meaninglessness.” But more than simply ending negative behaviors, “can organizations create an environment that cultivates high levels of meaningfulness?” Based upon their interviews, the authors believe “The key to meaningful work is to create an ecosystem that encourages people to thrive.”

  1. Organizational Meaningfulness

Employees find it meaningful when companies communicate the broad purposes of an organization. This mandates that a company states its values and then live those values. If you talk the talk of doing business ethically and in compliance, your company must also walk the walk. Employees will be the first to understand that company values are paramount, at least until your quarterly numbers become more important. The authors note, “The challenge lies not only in articulating and conveying a clear message about organizational purpose, but also in not undermining meaningfulness by generating a sense of artificiality and manipulation.”

The authors provide some guidance about the types of articulation a company should provide. Such questions as “So what does the organization aim to contribute? What is its “core business”?How does the organization aspire to go about achieving this? What values underpin its way of doing business?”, these are all important in focusing on an employees’ “positive contribution of the organization to the wider society or environment”. 

  1. Job Meaningfulness

Most people believe their jobs have meaning and are meaningful. Yet the authors believe a company must encourage employees to see their jobs as “meaningful by demonstrating how jobs fit with the organization’s broader purpose or serve a wider, societal benefit.” This benefit was articulated as broadly as sales assistants at a large retail store who “listened to elderly customers” to priests who saw their work in local parishes as contributing to a greater church ministry. The key is for leaders to “show employees what their particular jobs contribute to the broader whole and how what they do will help others or create a lasting legacy.”

Most interestingly, such meaningfulness does not always have to derive from positive work experiences. The authors write, “Challenging, problematic, sad, or poignant jobs have the potential to be richly generative of new insights and meaningfulness, and overlooking this risks upsetting the delicate balance of the meaningfulness ecosystem… The task for leaders is to acknowledge the problematic or negative side of some jobs and to provide appropriate support for employees doing them, yet to reveal in an honest way the benefits and broader contribution that such jobs make.”

  1. Task Meaningfulness

The great bane of almost every organization is bureaucracy. The blight of almost every employee is tedious work. Yet it is through tedious work that employees are able to develop skills which lead to more challenging and rewarding work. Think about how you were forced to learn algebra to move on to higher math in high school. This could even be applied to Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours to expertise formulation.

In the organizational context, tedious tasks will always exist. The role of a leader is to show how it will lead to something more meaningful. The authors’ write, “Where organizations successfully managed the context within which these necessary but tedious tasks were undertaken, the tasks came to be perceived not exactly as meaningful, but equally as not meaningless.”

  1. Interactional Meaningfulness

This element has a couple of contexts. The first is where an employee can interact with “others who benefit from their work; and, second, in an environment of supportive interpersonal relationships.” The authors said, “The challenge here is for leaders to create a supportive, respectful, and inclusive work climate among colleagues, between employees and managers, and between organizational staff and work beneficiaries. It also involves recognizing the importance of creating space in the working day for meaningful interactions where employees are able to give and receive positive feedback, communicate a sense of shared values and belonging, and appreciate how their work has positive impacts on others.”

  1. Putting It All Together – Holistic Meaningfulness

The point at which these four elements intersect is what the authors term “Holistic meaningfulness, where the synergistic benefits of multiple sources of meaningfulness can be realized.” This generally reaches “beyond the workplace and into the realm of the individual’s wider personal life. It can be a very profound, moving, and even uncomfortable experience. It arises rarely and often in unexpected ways; it gives people pause for thought — not just concerning work but what life itself is all about. In experiencing work as meaningful, we cease to be workers or employees and relate as human beings, reaching out in a bond of common humanity to others. For organizations seeking to manage meaningfulness, the ethical and moral responsibility is great, since they are bridging the gap between work and personal life.”

Adam Grant, writing in a Huffington Post article entitled “The #1 Feature of a Meaningless Job,  said that the goal for employees is for their job to have purpose. While it may be difficult to garner meaning every day, if a company would work to craft jobs so that each employee not only understood the overall company goal but how their job and their role all fit into that bigger picture, it would build upon the personal and individual experiences which tend to give rise to meaningfulness to employees. This is the role of a leader and specifically the role of a CCO in any compliance function.


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© Thomas R. Fox, 2016