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This article explores the idea of meaningful work and having meaning in our organisations and for our people. It contrasts meaningful work with the idea of purpose in our organisations, which is quite different to many people.

On purpose, as opposed to meaning

Almost every organisation is encouraged to have a purpose.  The purpose expresses why you exist and what seek to achieve.

Notice that any mission or purpose statement, is aspirational.  They describe what we are trying to achieve (purpose/mission) and what we want to happen (vision).  In the case of a client I worked with, a Christian Children’s’ charity, it was to help and protect children at risk and in poverty. 

Of course many people will join an organisation because of that purpose. They want to make a difference.  They aspire to make change. 

Purpose and vision are future orientated.  They are long term.  I may join an organisation because I believe it fulfils an important role and purpose, and I want to contribute to that.

On Meaning, as opposed to purpose

Meaning is something different.  Meaningful work is making a difference, now… TODAY!

So, in the charity example, many staff who ran the children’s day centres were transferred in under contracts. Many of these people, may not have been aware of the organisation’s wider purpose, nor shared it Christian values. What they really cared about was each child they saw that day.  They wanted to go home each day, feeling they made a difference to that child’s life.

Making a difference to that child, when thay child needed help, was what mattered to them.  That gave their job meaning  They wanted to feel their work was meaningful (full of meaning)…  today.

The key difference between purpose and meaning

There is a simple, but important, distinction here:  Purpose is future tense; while Meaning is present tense.

Implications of considering meaning in our work and organisations

Implications of meaning for recruitment and retention

People may join an organisation for purpose.  It matches their ambitions and aspirations and perhaps values.  However, if they feel they are no longer making a difference, in the way they define it, then work will lack meaning for them. This is irrespective of how important the purpose and aspiration of the organisation might be. 

However, when work becomes persistently meaningless, it can also become full of stress (stressful).  Ultimately, if they have a choice, people will go elsewhere.  I suspect, (from personal experience), that the only thing that might be keeping them where they are, is the time it takes to find a place that will have more meaning and a suitable purpose.  They seek more meaningful employment (or less hassle and day to day ****).

How meaning affects how they see themselves in their organisations

Senior people get carried away about loyalty to the org but what I see is people who are loyal to the people they support and and their immediate team . The trick is to ensure we maintain the near loyalty by supporting our staff well to do the best job they can; in that way people become loyal to the org because it recognises their value and supports them to even better.

Or to say the same thing in the vernacular, “I like my boss, she/he protects me from the crap the organisation throws at me, so I can get on with what matters.”

Implications from demographics

The common belief is that the millennial generation are more inclined to seek work that is both purposeful and meaningful.  (Though finding such a job can be hard).  Therefore, we should adapt our organisations to ensured we present this and deliver this.  

I suggest that this idea of meaning at work, and meaningful work, is not a new phenomenon.  It is a persistent need and occurrence across the generations.   Aspirational purpose is not enough.  No matter which generation they might be in, we need to ensure our work is meaningful for people.

Meaning is cumulative: it builds, or erodes day by day

It is the cumulative (day after day after day) and aggregate (across all the people) individual days of meaningful work, that works toward purpose and vision.

The implications of meaning at work, for how we manage

I know you are ahead of me on this. Here goes anyway….

Of course, this is about how we choose to manage our organisation.  Do our ways of thinking about people, our systems and processes and how we manage contribute to meaningful work, each day?  Or do they get in the way?

How we help people make a difference, and see they are making a difference. So they can attrribute meaning to their work, themselves.

How we help them learn and develop, individually and organisationally, is all about meaning. 

I am sure you have already started thinking about how will you build more meaning into the way you manage your strategy, people and organisation , haven’t you….

A few links to my other articles that might prompt more thoughts…

Ways to address meaningful work and how we manage better to achieve that: