Taking into consideration the fact that we spend approximately 24% of our waking hours at work, the emotions we experience at work will have an impact on our everyday life. Meaningful work can transform our mundane working routine into one with purpose.

Our work has implications on our personal identity and self-esteem. For a lot of people, work has become their primary source of significance and purpose in life. Meaningful work can satisfy our need to make a contribution. “When individuals are pursuing a profound purpose or engaging in work that is personally important they experience significant positive effects” – J. Lee Whittington.
MIT Sloan Management Review published an article in 2016 on what makes work meaningful or meaningless. They interviewed 135 people in 10 different occupations. Some interesting findings included; the quality of leadership received no mention when people spoke about meaningful moments. But poor management was the top destroyer of meaningfulness. Another finding was that employees tended to find meaningfulness for themselves. The MIT Sloan Management Review said they discovered that if managers want to destroy that sense of meaningfulness, it was far easier to achieve.

Meaningfulness in work

People tend to experience meaning as;
  1. Self-Transcendence (The impact and relevance of their work on others)
  2. Poignant (Moments associated with mixed, uncomfortable, or even painful thoughts and feelings. Not just a sense of unalloyed joy and happiness)
  3. Episodic (Work was not consistently meaningful, rather meaningful moments arose that were generative of strong experiences)
  4. Reflective (Rarely experienced in the moment, but rather in retrospect and upon reflection)
  5. Personal (Understood by people not just in the context of their work, but also in the broader context of their personal life experiences)

Meaninglessness in work

Meaninglessness in work is caused by:

  1. Disconnect people from their values
  2. Take your employees for granted
  3.  Give people pointless work to do
  4. Treat people unfairly
  5. Override people’s better judgment
  6. Disconnect people from supportive relationships
  7. Put people at risk of physical or emotional harm

Is the world of business contributing to our sense of meaninglessness?

Since the start of the first Industrial Revolution in 1760, the nature of work has become something akin to “using people to get a result”. Now that we’re in the middle of the Fourth Industrial Revolution hundreds of years later, this view has become entrenched in our collective consciousness. Decades of Leadership theories and Management are expressed in one form or another as the art of achieving a result through people. For example;

  • Harold Koontz, “Management is the art of getting things done through others and with formally organised groups.”

  • Mary Parker Follett, “The art of getting things done through people.”

  • Charles Handy, “A leader shapes and shares a vision which gives point to the work of others.”

  • Zalenik, A, “Leadership requires using power to influence the thoughts and actions of other people.”

  • Stogdill, “Leadership is the initiation and maintenance of structure in expectation and interaction.”

Are you kidding me?! It’s exactly that kind of thinking that is exacerbating the sense of meaninglessness at work. Academics like John Vaeraeke are talking about the meaning crisis.

According to Gallup, in 2018, 85% of employees were “not engaged”. With the COVID pandemic, engagement actually increased. But analysts say this will be short lived. There is a sharp drop expected, similar to the pattern in the 2008 GFC (Global Financial Crisis). The question is why? Why do our places of work become these artificial constructs that suck people in. That drain their energy, emotions, potential and spit out empty husks walking around depressed? Probably because we expect work to be about getting results at the expense of people.

We’ve become quite excellent at “How” but still suck at “Why”

I’m currently studying for a SAFe (Scaled Agile Framework) certification called SAFe SPC (SAFe Program Consultant). Which is brilliant. I’ve never seen a program course so well structured and presented. The content is becoming a synthesis of theory, framework and lived experience. And all of this comes together with a coherent approach to doing things lean and agile. But not just at the team level, but at the macro organisational level. So if it’s so great, why am I sitting here talking about the prevalence of meaninglessness in work?

I’ve been influenced by the Schuitema Group so strongly that I’ve now joined them. Our quest is to make work meaningful for the 21st century human and breathe consciousness into businesses. We’re not afraid to dig down deep enough to get to the core of the primary “Why”: Why should you run your business? Why should you reflect on your intent? Why should you even bother showing up for work?

Agile frameworks are great at teaching organisations how to become more responsive to the market and deliver quality products and services at speed. There’s a lot of value in it and this is why I’m putting time and energy into becoming a certified SAFe trainer. But on their own, they won’t be able to change the attitudes that lie at the core of most organisations. Rather, the intent people have towards each other. It’s almost like saying SAFe competencies and values are based on Agile principles which in turn are based on the Agile Manifesto (the heart of Agile). But even that doesn’t go deep enough to transmute the intent people have towards each other. To go there, we need to look at the Schuitema Care & Growth thematic.

Care & Growth

At the Schuitema Group we teach organisations to turn this notion around. Instead of treating people as the resource that gets thrown into the meat-grinder to produce a result, we teach them to see the result as the means to care for and grow people.

We teach leaders their job is not to get a result through people. It is to develop people so that they can go and get the results. It’s like the coach who helps players become great. We teach teams how to set each other up for success. Chasing the goal of the collective over individual stardom. When people and teams switch their intent from taking to giving, their whole enterprise takes off. Counter-intuitively, results take care of themselves, employee engagement goes up and people start to enjoy their work.

You want your organisation to be lean and agile? That’s great. Can we start with being caring and human first? Can we recognise we are a collection of people first before we talk about systems, processes and tools? There are no systems thinking, complexity theory, or management 3.0 without people. People aren’t resources that can be exploited.

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