Thursday, 23 June 2016

What makes our work meaningful? Do bosses really make it meaningless?

The media has used the findings to demonise bosses, but such coverage forgets an important point, writes Alex Fradera
There have been times in my life where work seemed pretty pointless, on occasion because the position was a prime example of what anthropologist David Graeber calls bullshit jobs – those that give no real value back to oneself or society. But I’ve more frequently experienced the sense that a job was at some times meaningless, and at others very worthwhile. That’s a theme picked up in Catherine Bailey and Adrian Madden’s new study published in MIT Sloan Management Review, where interviews with 135 people within 10 different occupations explored times when work was meaningful or meaningless.

Like myself, interviewees didn’t consider meaningfulness as a fixed property of their job. They described it arising in episodes, highly intense and memorable peaks separated by unremarkable lulls. Some cases exemplified what the work was all about, such as an academic giving what they knew to be a superb lecture, whereas others were quite outside the norm, such as a shop assistant tending to a critically ill customer.

Often, these episodes had a personal flavour, such as the participant who recalled the first music recital attended by her parents. Many involved recognising the impact their work had had on people besides themselves, whether their students’ graduation or when their engineering innovation had been translated into products used by others. These personal and transcendent aspects were easily fused, such as in the example given by a refuse collector, where, during a crisis triggered by contamination of the local water supply, he visited one neighbour after another providing clean water.

It’s tempting to assume valuable work experiences should be positive – euphoric, air-punching highs – but the interviews teemed with examples that were heavy and challenging. Nurses described end-of-life situations; lawyers, toiling through a heavy, hard case; workers, pushing together against a seemingly intractable problem. Bailey and Madden suggest that organisations and researchers both may be neglecting such poignant experiences, which don’t tally with a superficial account of positive psychology, but may be very important in making work meaningful.

Times that meant something often involved contact with family and friends, peers and particularly the people served by the job. In contrast, managers were mentioned in accounts of meaningless work: times when the interviewee felt treated unfairly, disempowered or taken for granted, or when managerial priorities separated from important relationships with peers, or disconnected them from the values that mattered most to them, such as when the bottom line was placed over the quality of work. It’s for this reason that Bailey and Madden concluded that managerial meddling is often to blame when our work feels meaningless – a claim that has attracted boss-bashing headlines in the mainstream media, such as MoneyWeb’s Bosses destroy meaningful work.

But this media coverage, while fun, forgets an important point – in all but the most dysfunctional organisations, managers have a role in determining the conditions around work, which means – as Bailey and Madden themselves note – that a deft manager can be of benefit.

How does the work have a bigger meaning; for example, how does recycled waste actually lead to the creation of new objects? How can people devoted to their work get opportunities to interact with each other, and with the people their work benefits? How can the difficult times at work – like the eventual loss of a resident at your hospice – be met with appropriate support, but also recognised as valuable? And how can grey tasks like filling out forms be reduced, or at the least, be joined up with the important stuff? Should management solve such problems, they’d fade into the background, and in all likelihood, stay unsung in interviews about meaningful work. But that won’t mean that their efforts didn’t matter, and hopefully they can take pride – and meaning – in that.

--What Makes Work Meaningful — Or Meaningless

Post written by Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) for the BPS Research Digest.

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