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In search of meaning at work Published: Sunday, November 7, 2010 8:00 am By: Ramón L. Rivera, President & CEO

Humans create and need meaning. In fact, it is a fundamental trait of humans to attach meaning to the objects they perceive in the world, to their relationships with others, to their own physical form, and to the various manifestations of self –a trait that is as universal as that of language. The complex operations that characterize human cognition carry this meaning-generating function on many levels. Classifying an object according to selected criteria, attaching value to it, and judging its aesthetic appeal, are all mental operations that, in one way or another, give meaning to the phenomenal world.

In work settings, people again create and need meaning. Have you ever had a meaningful work?  If so, what was it like?  If not, what does it lack?  Have you ever thought of the consequences of not being able to understand what is going on in one’s work and to know the results of one’s actions?  In sociology, it is called “alienation.”  This phenomenon can be traced back to the beginning of the 20th century, maybe even earlier.

Along with the industrialization of the societies, work was organized in a scientific manner.  Time and movement studies were conducted in order to maximize the efficiency of operations and the productivity of workers.  People were then treated as if they were an extension of the machine and expendable spare parts; they were asked to exert simple, narrow skills, and their performance was closely monitored by foremen dedicated to the hierarchy.  Work has evolved a lot since the Industrial Revolution. Partly due to the progress of sciences and technologies, major transformations happened in the organizational structure and culture, with their consequences on the organization of work.

According to James Hillman (James Hillman, A Blue Fire. New York: Harper & Row, pp. 171-172), humans have an instinct to work.  What is this work instinct?  In psychology, an instinct is an innate and powerful tendency.  So, the work instinct would be an innate and powerful tendency to exert one’s mental and physical powers, one’s skills and talents, in order to achieve something, to reach a goal, to create, to express one’s self, etc.  Working is vital for human beings; it is a critical activity for the preservation of personal health.

To the extent that the work organization allows, work can serve as a tonic for personal identity in that it helps boost self-esteem.  When an individual does a meaningful work, he actually develops a sense of identity, worth, and dignity.  By achieving meaningful results, he actually achieves himself, grows, and even, actualizes his full potential.  Somehow, he has an opportunity to become who he is and to contribute to the improvement of his life conditions and of his community.  Work becomes problematic when an individual cannot relate to it.  Some would say that this experience is alienation.

To work is to exert effort in order to make something, to achieve something, to produce a desired effect.  For human beings, “to be able to do something” means to make it visible that “I”, as the subject, is active in the world, that “I” exist7.  As Erich Fromm pointed it, work is an effective mean to deal with the angst of death and void.  He once wrote: “The principle can be formulated thus: I am because I effect.” Therefore, working is a meaningful way to prove one’s existence, and hopefully, that it is worth to be lived.

More specifically, the work instinct is associated with the pleasure that provides the opportunity to achieve something, to surpass oneself, to exercise one’s imagination and intelligence, to become a better person, to know oneself, to meet other people, to help people, to feel competent and powerful, to be effective, etc.  In sum, work is a major activity for human beings.  It corresponds to the motivation to demonstrate one's existence, to transcend one's own death by leaving traces of one's existence.

The great researcher Estelle M. Morin has studied different environments to determine the characteristics of a meaningful job. The model that seems to emerge from all her studies since 1997 features the following six characteristics of meaningful work:

  • Social Purpose: Doing something that produces something meaningful to others.
  • Moral Correctness: Doing a job that is morally justifiable in terms of its processes and its results
  • Achievement-related pleasure: Doing a job that stimulates the development of one’s potential and that enables achieving one’s goals.
  • Autonomy: Being able to use one’s skills and judgment to solve problems and make decisions regarding one’s job.
  • Recognition: Doing a job that corresponds to one’s skills, whose results are recognized and whose compensation is adequate.
  • Positive relationships: Doing a job that enables making interesting contacts and good relationships with others. 

Managers play a key role in building healthy workplaces.  First, they should have the skills and the integrity to clarify expectations and to provide clear, coherent guidance to their employees along with the mission of the organization they lead, in order to give work a sense of purpose and usefulness.  They are also responsible for ensuring that the time and well being of employees are respected. They must have the courage to make strategic decisions that promote justice, equity, and their staff’s health and safety. They must also ensure that work and organizational practices respect human dignity. They should support the efforts and initiatives of their employees and encourage mutual support in difficult times.


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