The Only Person Who Can Make Your Job Meaningful Is You

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Photo: Chris Haston/NBCU Photo Bank

No one could ever accuse Michael Scott, the hapless boss played by Steve Carell on the American version of The Office, of not trying hard enough. In a classic season-two episode, Michael introduces viewers to the Dundies, an annual awards show he’s invented to imbue employment at a mid-sized failing paper company with a greater sense of meaning. “An employee will go home,” Michael says, “and he’ll tell his neighbor, ‘Hey, did you get an award?’ And the neighbor will say, ‘No, man. I mean, I slave all day and nobody notices me.’ Next thing you know, employee smells something terrible coming from neighbor’s house. Neighbor’s hanged himself due to lack of recognition. So.”

It is unfortunate, then, that when a boss tries to create meaningfulness on the job for his or her employees, it does not seem to work very well – if at all – according to a forthcoming paper by researchers Catherine Bailey of the University of Sussex and Adrian Madden, of the University of Greenwich. Earlier this month in MIT Sloan Management Review, Bailey and Madden outlined the results of their interviews with 135 people employed in ten distinct job fields, which, they write, surprised them at nearly every turn.

They expected, for instance, that those they interviewed would talk about the inspiration they drew from working under particularly visionary leaders — those charismatic bosses who lead by example, making sure to communicate the bigger picture to their underlings. This is known in the organizational psychology literature as transformational leadership, and it stands in direct contrast with transactional leadership; the latter is the type of manager whose toolbox primarily consists of carrots and sticks. “We were anticipating that our data would show that the meaningfulness experienced by employees in relation to their work was clearly associated with actions taken by managers, such that, for example, transformational leaders would have followers who found their work meaningful,” Bailey and Madden write, “whereas transactional leaders would not.”

And yet this is precisely not what they found. “Instead, our research showed that quality of leadership received virtually no mention when people described meaningful moments at work,” the researchers write in MIT Sloan Management Review, “but poor management was the top destroyer of meaningfulness.” Good management, like all good deeds, mostly went unnoticed by the worker bees surveyed here. But bad management was — and I think this phrase bears repeating, because it sure is something — the top destroyer of meaningfulness. There are so many ways to be a bad boss, but there were a few distinct things identified in this study that seemed to erase a sense of meaning for these employees, including the feeling that their manager was forcing them to go against their gut instincts or personal values.

Likewise, meaningfulness was not associated with the employees’ satisfaction with their work environment, or with their commitment to the job. And that’s likely because the sense of purpose a person finds in his or her work is a deeply personal thing, something that research has suggested is independent of the job description or office perks (or lack thereof). There are hospital janitors who find their jobs deeply meaningful; there are CEOs who find their jobs meaningless. As Bailey and Madden write of their findings:

[I]t was often revealed to employees as they reflected on their own work and its wider contribution to society in ways that mattered to them as individuals. People tended to speak of their work as meaningful in relation to thoughts or memories of significant family members such as parents or children, bridging the gap between work and the personal realm.

There is a cynical way to view this research — that even the best bosses are more likely to do harm than good when trying to help their employees find the greater purpose in their jobs. But there is another way to look at this, too: Making your job mean something doesn’t appear to be up to anyone but you. Though an award for Whitest Sneakers every once in a while is a nice bonus.