Meaningfulness is good for everyone

By Angelo Kinicki  |  Weatherup/Overby Chair in Leadership


I know many people who love what they do for work. Sadly, I know many more who do not. Let’s consider one of each.

Juan loved his job. He was a forklift driver for a tile and flooring company. I interviewed him outside on a hot, sunny Arizona day. As we discussed his job, with sweat beading up on our foreheads, he told me how important it was to be a forklift driver for this company. He believed that he played a key role in ensuring that quality tiles were delivered to the job sites. You see, he was the last person to inspect the pallets of tile before they were loaded and delivered. He also believed that he could reduce costs and increase customer satisfaction by making sure that the right tile was loaded on the designated trucks. He had an amazing attention to detail.

Although Juan did not make a lot of money, he believed that his job was key to the success and image of the company. When I asked how he came to his beliefs, he said that the company president and his immediate boss were instrumental. These individuals treated Juan as an important and valued member of the team as opposed to a simple forklift driver.

In contrast, Mary was a highly paid MBA who used to love her job. Like Juan, she believed that her daily activities and tasks were critical for the organization’s success. She was good at her job and received increased responsibility due to her excellent work. Unfortunately, Mary’s motivation and satisfaction were squashed by the combination of an ineffective boss and a toxic work environment. Once again we see that supervisors and managers significantly affect how employees view the meaningfulness of their work.

Cultivating meaningfulness at work is important because research shows that people are happier, healthier and more productive when they are doing “meaningful” work.

There are two things to keep in mind about meaningful work.

First, it is a perceptual conclusion based on both subjective and objective considerations. Two people can perform the same job yet possess different views about its meaningfulness. For example, I love teaching undergraduate and graduate students, but for a time I worked with a professor who only wanted to teach doctoral students. He viewed the teaching of undergraduate students as boring and unimportant. Objectively, you can derive meaning from feedback received from colleagues, customers or your boss. There is nothing more satisfying than hearing that your work helped someone.

Second, we feel that something is meaningful when it provides value to a greater good. In other words, we tend to see our work as meaningful when we view it as contributing to something bigger than ourselves. Examples include providing great customer service, helping a person in need, putting others’ needs above our own and training someone to master a job.

While I wish everyone had a boss that fostered meaningfulness, I know that this is a fantasy. I also know that some of us perform jobs that don’t contain a lot of opportunity to experience meaningfulness. Here are some suggestions for how you can increase the meaningfulness of your work and personal life.

Identify tasks and activities you enjoy doing — something you have a passion for. Next, try to find ways to build these activities into your job or personal life. You may have to volunteer for these activities if they are not currently part of your job. For example, if you like to work on tasks requiring attention to detail, ask your boss if you can help with doing inventory or tracking the cause of customer returns.

You have more control of this recommendation when it comes to your personal life. For example, I love to play golf and I love teaching people new things. I could increase the meaning in my life by volunteering to help children learn how to play golf. You may love to hike. If so, make time to hike or spend time in nature.

Determine your natural strengths and find ways to build them into your personal and work life. We all have things that come naturally to us. It could be speaking in public, working with numbers, resolving conflict, doing internet searches, making decisions, thinking creatively, explaining instructions to others, spending time with children or being friendly and supportive. Your work will be more meaningful if it contains some component of your natural strengths.

Find ways to help others. Research clearly shows that people find meaning in helping others. These can be small activities like helping a friend to complete a home repair, or bigger items such as volunteering to coach your child’s sport team.

Viktor Frankl, was an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist who survived the Holcaust, provided great advice for increasing meaningfulness in his book “Man’s Search for Meaning.” He noted that “striving to find a meaning in one’s life is the primary motivational force.” In other words, meaning comes from having a purpose in our lives.



First published in The Arizona Republic