Adam Grant, University of Pennsylvania business professor, writes that Americans have reported for decades that purpose is the most important factor in their jobs, taking priority over work schedule, income, job security, and promotions. He notes, however, that “all too often, we feel that our work doesn’t matter.”
To this end he asks what exactly makes a job meaningless? Four decades worth of research has shown that individuals who lack “autonomy, variety, challenge, performance feedback, and the chance to work on a whole product or service from start to finish” are the most disconnected from finding meaning in their work. What is surprising, though, is that 90% of people in jobs that meet these criteria still view their work as having very little meaning.
Why is this? Grant believes the answer is that “they rarely have a significant, lasting impact on other people. If these jobs didn’t exist, people wouldn’t be all that much worse off.” And so the professions that “make an important difference in the lives of others” are the ones in which people report greater fulfillment – professions such as adult literacy teacher, nurse midwife, or addiction counselor.
To remedy the emptiness that some people might feel at work, Grant offers two suggestions. The first is for those with jobs that do contribute to the lives of others, but are too far removed to see the sorts of impacts that their products and services have. In these cases, Grant recommends connecting workers directly with end users so there is a more vivid sense of past and future influence.
The second suggestion pertains to jobs that might not directly impact the lives of others. In these situations, Grant advocates “job crafting” which is the “adding, emphasizing, revising, delegating, or minimizing tasks and interactions in pursuit of greater meaning.” For example, hospital cleaners who don’t have direct contact with patients could step up to lend emotional support to patients and their families during difficult times. Why is this effective? Grant contends that “When people craft their jobs, they become happier and more effective.”
It’s through changes such as these that at a time when people find little meaning in their work, “the chance to help others can be what makes our work worthwhile.”
Grant’s post is a great analysis of the fact that we not only have a jobs crisis that we’re recovering from, but a careers crisis as well that requires attention, where individuals see their work as devoid of meaning and disconnected from what they find significant. And at a time when the latest 2013 Gallup poll shows that 50% of the American workforce is not engaged, and that 20% are actively disengaged, indeed addressing this issue now couldn’t be more timely.
The suggestions Grant offers for (re)instilling meaning back into jobs taps into a profound truth, namely that it’s in returning to our shared humanity in which we help one another through our efforts that we find significance. By pursuing a purpose that goes beyond our own concerns, and laboring to make a positive difference in the lives of others, we find a spirited connection to what we do. This is a valuable reminder that meaning doesn’t simply lie within us, it is created in the deep exchanges and connections that we share with others, and in the efforts that help us all rise together.
Categories: HOW: Workplace Cultures