Science of Self ™ Knowledge Centre

Smashing Boulders - Meaningful Work

Sep 27, 2011

In this series, we are talking about 6 key drivers that come up time and again in the research on employee engagement. This is part of #2: Meaningful and Important WorkIn the last 2 posts, we talked about the 17 elements of the perfect boss, followed by a list of the 20 most horrible bosses. While it is true that a person's direct boss is the factor that is most often cited as being the biggest in influencing whether your workplace is one of heaven or hell, the other factor that is often argued as being the most important for engagement, revolves around how meaningful the work is.

Take, for instance, the following point made by Teresa Amabile, a professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, who conducted a lengthy survey of 238 people that made diary entries every day for 5 months:

“We found that the most important indicators on employee engagement [were] not things that most managers think about. The most important event that happened was simply making progress in meaningful work."

This certainly makes a lot of sense. After all, if you really felt that your work was meaningless or that your effort was leading you nowhere - it wouldn't matter how good your boss was - it would be impossible to stay engaged.


This brings to mind the story of a depressed manager who once visited a coach. Upon meeting the coach, she explained that she had everything she needed and wanted from her workplace. Good pay, good working conditions, a good team. She was a very well respected manager, working in her role for many years and the company really needed her there. But there was just one thing wrong. She simply couldn't get passionate about what the company produced: biros. The company sold a commodity, so to her, she believed the work had little significance. She exclaimed to the coach: "I mean, I've tried to get excited about my work, I really have, but I think to myself... they're just pens for goodness sakes!"


Meaning is the word we use to describe that warm, fuzzy, sense of pride that your job gives you - there's just something about your work that gets under your skin and cuddles up with your values. In the ideal job, therefore, it is not so much the one with the best pay or the nicest surroundings, but the one that requires you to do those tasks that you intrinsically believe are important. Of course, this is a deeply individual thing. A person who loves helping people might feel at home as a nurse, but hate their life as a mortgage broker. Whereas a person who loves dealing with numbers may find the reverse is true.

"To each his own." - Cicero (Roman author, orator, & politician, 106 BC - 43 BC)

It seems the trick to being engaged is to find a role that allows you to engage your personal values. As a manager, the best way to engage someone would be to recruit a person whose values already fit with the role's. That being said, each manager (and the leadership team as a whole) have a crucial role in helping to shape each team member's perception of the importance of their work.

In order to help people see "beyond the biro", the manager must communicate the 3 elements of meaningful work:

  • 1. We need to understand why we are doing it
  • 2. We need to see how the little tasks make a difference
  • 3. We need to know our work contributes to some kind of greater good


To put this into practice, let's use another story. This one is about three men found smashing boulders with hammers in a quarry. A stranger approached the three men and asked what they were doing. The first man looked exhausted and grunted back "breaking big rocks into little rocks." The second, who looked a little more focused on the task than the first man, replied "working to feed my family". He then approach the third man, who seemed to be fully involved in the labor as he cracked open another rock and smiled at the stranger, "I'm building a cathedral."


As a manager, get into the habit to explain why...

  • 1. Explain why they are building the cathedral
  • 2. Explain why their everyday work matters to the success of the cathedral
  • 3. Explain why the cathedral will help others around them

Spend some time to look around the office today. Do your people have a sense of purpose about their work? Do they know that their work makes a difference?

Are they making biros or changing the way people write?

Are they breaking rocks or building cathedrals?

If you would like more information about measuring your core values go here


Topics: Employee Engagement

Theo Winter

Theo Winter

Client Services Manager, Writer & Researcher. Theo is one of the youngest professionals in the world to earn an accreditation in TTI Success Insight's suite of psychometric assessments. For more than a decade, he worked with hundreds of HR, L&D and OD professionals and consultants to improve engagement, performance and emotional intelligence of leaders and their teams. He authored the book "40 Must-Know Business Models for People Leaders."


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