What Is Meaningful Work, Anyways?

Best-selling author Daniel Goleman explains what separates a meaningful job from one that just pays the bills.

Daniel Goleman is a senior consultant at Goleman Consulting Group, author of the best seller Emotional Intelligence, and host of the podcast First Person Plural: Emotional Intelligence and Beyond. He is a regular contributor to Korn Ferry. 

While employee disengagement has been an issue for decades, things seem to have gotten  worse over the past two years, inspiring what’s being called the Great Resignation and quiet quitting.

Since we know purpose boosts engagement, a fundamental question is becoming increasingly important: What is meaningful work?

In most cases, it’s a job that is about more than just paying the bills. It means we are doing something that connects with our values, piques our interest, and engages our moral compass. For many workers, it describes a job where they feel fulfilled and valuable – where their day-to-day efforts are both appreciated and connected to something that transcends their personal interests.

The myths of meaningful work are many: some believe it’s less likely to occur outside the helping professions, industries such as healthcare where employees are directly impacting lives. But when researchers asked 245 participants to name a job or careers they could do that would give them a sense of meaning—and those they could do that wouldn’t—they found that meaning varies greatly from person to person.

“Forty-four percent of the jobs that were listed as being meaningful by one participant were listed by at least one other participant as lacking meaning,” reported the researchers, “Similarly, 55% of the jobs that were listed as meaningless by one participant were listed as meaningful by someone else.”

This echoes what scholars have often uncovered in their studies of purpose: individual, job, organizational, and societal factors all contribute to how people find and connect to a sense of meaning. Although purpose is often positioned in the context of issues such as climate change, the degree to which a person finds meaning in their job depends greatly on their own judgment of what’s important and worthwhile. It also depends on leadership and how the organizational culture functions. One review suggests that in order to enable individuals to move beyond their own values and worldviews, organizations should foster environments characterized by “well-designed, good-fitting, and quality jobs that provide opportunities to job craft” and “facilitative leaders, cultures, policies and practices” that promote high-quality relationships.

In short, meaning flows from a variety of places, practices, and interconnections.

David Rock, CEO of NeuroLeadership Institute, describes what he calls “the ladder of construal” which basically describes how the brain connects our actions to something bigger. He gives the often-cited example of a janitor at NASA who, in sweeping the floors, understands he is part of putting a person on the moon.

While not everyone who works at NASA sees their job this way, Rock says leaders in every industry can activate the ladder of construal by showing how an individual's work connects to a shared goal. A recent report from Korn Ferry, calls this “drawing a line of sight,” noting there are two ways leaders should do this - vertically and horizontally. Horizontally, they need to communicate how the organization’s immediate business goals help achieve the larger vision and purpose of the enterprise. Vertically, they must communicate how important organizational objectives translate down the line into department, team, and individual performance goals.

But as leaders rally their teams around a shared goal, this piece around individual motivations can add a deeper and richer dimension. NeuroLeadership identifies five intrinsic motivations: Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, and Fairness. They claim these inform not only how employees like to be rewarded, but also can provide a useful frame on how to help individuals connect to organizational goals and outcomes.

 “When you’re trying to create meaning for someone [who is] really passionate about autonomy,” explains Rock, “they love it when they have choices, so to that person meaningful work is when they get to be more in control.”

Put it all together and what begins to emerge is a multi-level model of what makes work meaningful. Meaningful work—and the engagement it elicits—doesn’t come from a single place. Instead, it is a mixture of factors that drive us to feel like our time and efforts are well spent.

Cowritten by Liz Solomon. 

Click here to learn more about Daniel Goleman's Building Blocks of Emotional Intelligence.