By using a definition of meaning as comprehension in context, it is possible to identify a model of meaning in work which can be empirically tested. It may be worth identifying what my model turned out to be:
Predictors of Meaning in Work
1. Strength of purpose – I hypothesised that by identifying a strong and well articulated purpose people are far more likely to interact with the world, experience more and in turn generate more learning and comprehension.
2. Transcendent purpose. I hypothesised that people have different types of purpose and I compared people who reported a ‘self related’ purpose (i.e. to make money, or be successful) with those who also had a transcendent purpose (i.e. to ‘dent the universe’ or impact the world in some way). I hypothesised that those with self-related purpose will be focused on themselves and their immediate surroundings. Those with a transcendent purpose will have a wider experience, because theirs is an “externally oriented quest” to affect the world around them through their work (Damon, Mennon, Cotton Bronk, 2003). Thus over time, a transcendent purpose would bring someone into contact with more stimuli than the narrower self-related purpose, and eventually to greater comprehension.
3. Use of strengths at work. By understanding one’s own strengths, individuals display and experience a certain amount of self-understanding. By subsequently using strengths at work, this also implies some understanding of what the world needs in terms of that individual’s contribution.
4. Work role fit. Work role fit refers to the relation of the individual employee to the role that s/he performs in the organisation (Kristof, 1996). Researchers have linked work role fit to meaning due to the connection between a person’s sense of identity and the role which they fulfil at work (e.g. Brief & Nord, 1990; Shamir, 1991).
Clearly, there are other predictors which could increase comprehension (like job control). But these were the predictors which seemed most likely to increase comprehension in context and to be largely under the control of the individual.
So what did I find?
- As hypothesised, each of these 4 factors did significantly predict meaning in work.
- As a predictive model, these factors accounted for 73% of the variance of meaning in work. This is a very good model.
- Transcendent purpose did predict meaning in work, but of those who reported a self related purpose, they were less likely to experience meaning in work. In other words, if you want meaning in work, you need to focus beyond your own self interest.
- Meaning in work fully mediated the relationship with employee engagement and psychological wellbeing. So it is good for both health and productivity.
By identifying a clear and transcendent purpose and by using one’s strengths in a job which fits with one’s own values we can find much greater meaning in work. But in addition, (in keeping with classic work design models like the Job Characteristics Model) this state of meaningfulness also predicts other desirable outcomes like employee engagement and psychological wellbeing.
This is my own experience too. When I had work with little meaning, my mental health and performance plummeted. Now I have a great deal of meaning in work, both have risen.
Below are my slides from when I presented these findings at various psychology and career coaching conferences: