In a previous post, I reviewed the first half of Rosso et al.’s article on the meaning of work, which outlined where people derive meaning in work. In this post, I will outline some of the key mechanisms that result in meaningful work.
In their review Rosso et al. first identifies 7 key mechanisms that other scholars have used to explain how we derive meaning:
Authenticity refers to the alignment of an individual’s behaviours and their own perceptions of their “true self”. In other words, the less often an individual runs into situations of dissonance, the more authentic they’ll feel themselves to be.
Here, the research suggests that work environments that promote this feeling of authenticity contributes to a sense of meaningfulness. This makes sense – if a work place is aligned with one’s values and beliefs, you don’t have to “fake” it. If you don’t have to “fake” it, the work that you are doing will not only affirm your personal identity, it will also make you feel engaged at work.
Refers to an individual’s belief that they can directly influence something, or produce some sort of intended effect. Essentially, it’s one’s perception on how much control they have over things.
Research has outlined how important this construct is as a motivator of behaviour. In the work context, it contributes to work meaningfulness by allowing employees to feel they are capable of influencing their environment. We’ve all heard about the important of providing autonomy and knowing that your work makes a difference. When work promotes self-efficacy, work becomes more meaningful.
Is an individual’s self-evaluation of their self-worth. Self-esteem has been studied extensively, and was one thought of as the primary motivator of human behaviour.
Although little research has directly tired self-esteem to meaningful work, social psychology has outlined the important effects of self-esteem. Terror management theory, for example, is hinged on the relationship between death salience and self-esteem. Group researchers have noted the important contributions of group identity and group comparisons to self-esteem. Work can become meaningful if it promotes high self-esteem. This could be from branding, roles, rewards, and more.
Defined as a sense of directedness and intentionality in life, it is clear that anything providing a sense of purpose can easily be considered as meaningful.
A sense of purpose can be derived from intrinsic motivation or driven from some external source. As long as the work is seen as significant (for the individual or by others), we can derive purpose from what we do. Work that contributes to society or a “greater purpose” can make the work meaningful to an individual. For example, non-profit work or volunteering in 3rd world countries are often viewed as serving a greater purpose. An organization that advocates corporate social responsibility may also elicit a sense of purpose and contribute to meaningful work for the employees of these organizations.
People are innately social, and the drive to belong is a powerful motivator. By providing membership and group identification, work can become meaningful. This is particularly true for workers that perceive the groups to which they belong as valuable and distinctive.
Refers to superceding the self to groups, experiences, or entities in a way that transcends the self. By connecting work to something outside or greater than the self, some individuals feel interconnected in a way that provides a sense of contributing to a power higher than themselves. The focus is on subordinating him/herself to the group, knowing that the collective impacts society as a whole.
Cultural and interpersonal sensemaking
Is the process of collective or co-construction of meaning/sensemaking. This concerns the production of meaning, where the focus is on looking at how meaning itself is constructed. In other words, this mechanism is a social construction rather than a fulfillment of a fundamental human need like the previous 6 mechanisms.
Cultural context is key to defining what makes work meaningful. Cues in the environment contribute directly to how individuals construct meaning and their definitions of meaning.
Based on the above 7 mechanisms, Rosso et al. constructed a theoretical framework on the pathways to meaningful work:
From Rosso et al. (2010)
The Agency-Communion distinction is proposed for the different ways people approach work as driven by agency versus communion. The second distinction, Self-Others suggests that meaningfulness of work varies according to work experiences are directed toward the self or others.
These pathways to meaningful work are directly applicable in organizations, and should be on the radar of HR/leaders that want to focus on retaining and attracting employees. Although fitting people into strict boxes and applying processes or mechanisms associated with each box will not guarantee the prescribed outcome, it provides a good starting point for practitioners and sheds a lot of light onto how future researchers can further study meaningful work.
Rosso, B. D., Dekas, K. H. & Wrzesniewski, A. (2010). On the meaning of work: A theoretical integration and review. Research in Organizational Behavior. 30, 91-127.