What Makes Work Feel Meaningful?

(First in a series of articles inspired by the ideas of Barry Schwartz.)

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People Who Believe their Work Makes the World a Better Place are Most Satisfied

People who see their work as a “calling” find their work most satisfying. The mentality that animates such workers is strikingly simple: they believe their work is contributing to the construction of a world within which they would like to live.

Any Job Can Offer Satisfaction

The capacity to derive a sense of meaning from one’s work is not contingent upon the type of job one has. Virtually any job can potentially provide a sense of satisfaction. The following examples demonstrate how the feeling that one’s work is meaningful arises from considerations that do not depend on the specific tasks performed:

• Hospital Custodians

The custodians studied by Wrzesniewski were not encouraged to craft their work into callings. Meaningful and engaged work emerged because they wanted to craft their jobs into callings and because it was not forbidden by their employer.

A custodian cleans the room of a comatose patient. The patient’s father, who had been keeping a vigil for months, hadn’t seen the custodian clean the room, and snaps at the custodian. The custodian cleans the room again. Why? The Custodian explained his actions this way:

At first, I got on the defensive…Something (then) caught me and I said, ‘I’m sorry. I’ll go clean the room.’ I cleaned it so he could see me clean it…I can understand how he could be. It was like six months that his son was there. He’d be a little frustrated, and so I cleaned it again. But I wasn’t angry with him. I guess I could understand.”

The custodian’s job description says nothing about responsibility for patients and families. If the custodian were doing the job laid out by the job description, he would have argued with the patient’s father and perhaps brought in a supervisor to mediate if the patient’s father remained angry. He might have just ignored the man and gone about his business.

The key point that this example illustrates is that the custodian was doing a different job than that which his official job description reflects. Although the custodian was not technically “doing his job” when he cleaned the patient’s room for a second time, what the custodian sought in his work was shaped by the aims of the organization – promoting health and alleviating suffering – and was more consistent with the aims of his organization than the tasks laid out in his job description.

Workers like that described in the above example understand and internalize the aims of their employers in spite of their official job descriptions rather than because of them. These custodians shaped their jobs with the central purpose of the hospital in mind.

The custodians were not encouraged to craft their work into callings. Meaningful and engaged work emerged because these workers wanted to craft their jobs into callings.

• Industrialists

Industrialist Ray Anderson had an epiphany: Here he was, with more money than he or his heirs would know what to do with, and his company was poisoning the biosphere. Anderson wondered what good it would do to leave his enormous wealth to his grandchildren if the price of accumulating such wealth is an uninhabitable planet.

The CEO of a highly successful carpet manufacturer had an epiphany: his petroleum intensive industry was poisoning the biosphere. He wondered what good it would do to leave his grandchildren enormous wealth if the planet they inherited would be uninhabitable.

He resolved to transform every aspect of his company’s operations to achieve zero carbon footprint by 2020. The new mission connected employees to something bigger than making carpet. A great number of innovations were conceived and implemented by employees on the shop floor. The result of the CEO’s vision was a company that that remains extremely successful and that is populated by employees who are eager to come to work every day.

• Hairdressers

One stylist observed that the hair stylists’ shop is “one the few places in our society where you have permission to touch people. It’s so intimate. We humans have a need for connection.”

Hairdressers need to acquire a set of technical skills. But they are also proud of their ability to understand, talk to, and manage people. Hairdressers feel that doing their job well can make a big difference in the quality of the lives of the people they serve. They enjoy the creativity involved in styling hair but also enjoy “making people happy”. One stylist observed: “This is a business that is unlike most…It is one of the few places in our society where you have permission to touch people. It’s so intimate. We humans have a need for connection.”

Virtually any job has the potential to offer people satisfaction. Jobs can be organized to include variety, complexity, skill development, autonomy and growth. In each of the above examples, jobs that might not be expected to conduce to a sense of meaning are made meaningful because the work connects the worker to the welfare of others.

Organizational Impediments to Meaningful Work

While the way in which people think about their work partially depends on the attitudes that individuals bring to their work, the ability to derive meaning from work also depends on the way in way in which the work is organized and managed:

“Take discretion, engagement, and meaning out of work and people feel less “called” to it and get less satisfaction from doing it. As they get less satisfaction from doing it, they do it less well. As they do it less well, their supervisors take even more discretion away.”

While the actions performed by workers who craft their work into callings are in the best interest of the employer, such actions are not specifically identified in the worker’s job descriptions and may be regarded by management as problematic, as the work that engaged workers perform do not conform to the “metrics” and “efficiencies” created by management and diverge from the formal requirements of the job.

Management tends to be concerned with “efficiency” and is inclined to operate under the assumption that workers should tick off specific tasks to get “more” done. In the case of hospital custodians, for example, if each worker gets “more done”, the hospital can employ fewer workers and save money. This way of thinking can lead to management practices that are antithetical to the best interests of the organization. Workers who craft their work into callings can be experienced by managers as an impediment to control: If workers start deviating from their scripts, the thinking goes, control moves from the manager to the managed. Future articles in this series will explore other ideological and organizational impediments to our capacity to derive meaning from work.


All quotations are taken from:

Schwartz, Barry. Why We Work. TED Books, Simon & Schuster. New York. 2015.

Schwartz’s examples of workers who crafted their work into callings are taken from:

Anderson, Ray. Confessions of a Radical Industrialist: Profits, People, Purpose – Doing Business by Respecting the Earth. New York: St Martin’s Press, 2009.

Wrzesniewski, Amy, and J.E. Dutton. “Crafting a Job: Revisioning Employees as Active Crafters in Their Work.” Academy of Management Review, 26 (2001): 179-201.

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