What 5 factors actually make a job meaningful? (And what 7 don’t?)

Meaningful jobs lies right at the intersection of “the major dichotomy between employers and employees.” See, employers couldn’t care less about meaningful jobs. Those people are usually chasing revenue and growth, fatter bonuses for themselves, and … well, that’s about it.   

Employees, on the other hand, care a lot about meaningful jobs. Most of us won’t become CEOs or even “decision-makers,” and will instead hit just enough targets in our careers to give our family a good life. (Or so we hope.) In such a context, having a meaningful job — or a place that doesn’t make you plunge your head down the toilet at 10:42am each day — is pretty important.

So there’s the divide:

That intersection point has a lot of theoretical car wrecks. It pretty much explains turnover, malaise, low employee engagement, and more.

All this said, is there research out there about how to create meaningful jobs? You bet. There’s enough to choke a horse, but most is couched in “thought leadership” baloney. We’re going to avoid that and turn to MIT, a pretty vetted brand.

Meaningful jobs: 5 factors up, 7 factors down

Here’s a long, deep dive article from MIT’s Sloan School of Management called “What makes work meaningful — or meaningless?” Tons of research and citations, so if these topics interest you, go read it. I will break it down a little bit.

What five factors actually make work more meaningful for people? 

Here are the five qualities of meaningful jobs, per this research:

  • Self-transcendent
  • Poignant
  • Episodic
  • Reflective
  • Personal

Conversely, there are seven qualities whereby you’d never achieve meaningful jobs:

  • Disconnecting people from values
  • Taking employees for granted
  • Assigning people pointless work
  • Unfair treatment
  • Override people’s better judgement
  • Disconnect people from potentially supportive relationships
  • Physical or emotional harm

Let’s start with the good list and then move to the bad one.

Meaningful jobs: What it means

Here are some quick definitions on the five qualities above in the “good” column:

Self-transcendent: This is the top of Maslow. It means you talk about the impact your work has on others, as opposed to just yourself. Silicon Valley markets itself around this concept.

Poignant: Here’s a pull quote from MIT.

People often cried in our interviews when they talked about the times when they found their work meaningful. 

I think that about sums up “poignant.” I’ve cried about work — but never because my job was meaningful.

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Episodic: This is really important. The research shows that no one finds their work to be consistently meaningful. It’s mostly transpiring in episodes. Similarly, there’s this:

Meaningful moments such as these were not forced or managed. Only in a few instances did people tell us that an awareness of their work as meaningful arose directly through the actions of organizational leaders or managers. 

In short: a lot of how we approach employee engagement is total garbage.

Reflective: People aren’t very good at being self-aware, but “reflective” is about looking back at the end of projects and being able to say “Wow.”

Personal: This means that meaningful jobs have to occur in some type of personal context, like your dad visiting your office and beaming with pride. That’s a trite example, but I think you get it.

OK. So these are the five ways to get at meaningful jobs. Now let’s contrast the bad seven and pull it all back together.

Meaningful jobs: What prevents them

Let’s run through these seven.

Disconnect from values: This was the No. 1 thing preventing meaningful jobs in this MIT research. What form does it mostly take? Target-chasing revenue hounds only discussing cost and margins all day, essentially. Those workplaces will suck the soul right out of your body as if you were in Ghost.

Take employees for granted: This is “Management 101” at many companies, and most HR practices and technology actually enable this to happen instead of preventing it.

Pointless work: 21.4 million U.S. employees provide no value back to their company, so this is a real thing.

Unfair treatment: If I had to guess, this answer probably gets at compensation. Basically, an employee is saying: “I completed 442 sense of urgency projects for my boss last year, and I got a 1.7 percent raise?” Meanwhile, the CFO is vacationing in Moorea. That’s called “unfair treatment,” yes. It’s also called “hierarchy, standard definitions of.”

Override better judgement: The ironic thing about this is that most managers are actually terrible judges of ideas.

I try to think about work in different ways, and I also try to call out some managerial BS we’ve all experienced. If that kinda sorta interests you, I do a newsletter every Thursday. Feel free to join up.

Disconnect from supportive relationships: Having friends at work is a powerful thing, but too often managers are screeching about heads-down productivity and that prevents these relationships from developing.

Physical or emotional harm: … in other words, “work is abuse”

Alright, so … 5 ways to create meaningful jobs, and 7 ways to destroy them. Now what?

How can we create meaningful jobs?

Let’s start with a quote from MIT:

Given that meaningfulness is such an intensely personal and individual experience that is interpreted by individuals in the context of their wider lives, can organizations create an environment that cultivates high levels of meaningfulness? The key to meaningful work is to create an ecosystem that encourages people to thrive. As other scholars have argued, efforts to control and proscribe the meaningfulness that individuals inherently find in their work can paradoxically lead to its loss. 

OK. If you take all this together, here would be my five-point action plan on meaningful jobs.

1. Put aside excuses: The first thing most execs would say in any conversation about meaningful jobs would be, “Not my problem. I chase growth.” That’s an excuse. It is your problem, because that growth is gonna die in the river if you’re always flipping employees out. Stop the nonsense and the bluster and stop hiding behind your 1981 financial metrics. Acknowledge that people matter.

2. Hire better: In all likelihood, your recruiting process alienates the best people. Stop trying to “scale” or “automate” it and just focus on the type of person you know would do well in your company. (If you even know that.)

3. Play to strengths: Too much of conventional business is about designing ways to “fix” employees. We need more approaches to play to employee strengths.

4. Priority management: What are the actual priorities of this job, not whatever some middle manager is claiming are priorities that hour?

5. Align strategy and execution: When Tommy Target-Hitter gets to his desk on Wednesday, what is he working on? And how is that tied to the goals of the real decision-makers? Get this right.

Meaningful jobs: It’s not the company’s responsibility, right?

Legally? Financially? No. It’s not. A company just needs to provide value back to shareholders, essentially. Employees have long been “the second tier” of this whole deal. (Or the 19th tier depending on where you work.)

There is value to creating meaningful jobs, though. For example: here’s some research on empathy and the bottom line, here’s some on compassion and the bottom line, and here’s some on better communication and the bottom line.

Meaningful jobs can hit the bottom line — but many companies can’t hit the meaningful jobs target.

What else you got on meaningful jobs and developing them?

My name’s Ted Bauer. Don’t we all deserve meaningful jobs?

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