What is Meaningful Work?

Meaningful Work

What is Meaningful Work?

It doesn’t matter if your work meaning or meaningful work, both are a path to humanizing the workplace. The human condition has long been absent in the consideration of most workplaces. This blog explains What is Meaningful Work in more detail.


We can criticize Google for providing benefits like on-site day-care and laundry services as a way to keep people on its campus and working longer hours. 


Or we can recognize Google for understanding the sacrifice employees make by giving much of their time to their employer and providing solutions that help employees manage their day-to-day lives more easily. Both are small gestures to help pave the path forward to finding meaning or doing meaningful work.


What’s the difference between meaning and meaningful work? Simply speaking, meaning is a personal experience. It’s experienced when your team members find significance in their work.


It’s not the work itself, but the impact it has on the person. Obvious examples would be volunteering for something important to the employee or finding significance in the purpose of a project.


A steward invests the effort to learn how to make work a meaningful experience for her employees: heading up a working committee for an important cause, mentoring a new employee, revising outdated policies, writing code for a pet project. Meaningful work is work that aligns with employees’ values, strengths, interests, and talents.


Helping employees find meaning and do meaningful work does require you to reset some of your perceptions about how work is assigned to employees. For now, what’s important to understand is that meaning is not a nice-to-have but an essential element to creating optimism.


Areas of Meaning

It’s helpful to think of meaning in three different areas, or what I call Areas of Meaning. The first area is Social. This is where employees find meaning in helping others inside and outside the organization.


The second area is Work. Employees need to understand how their efforts support the team’s success and the organization’s, too. Work needs to facilitate meaning given that it’s a dominant focus in our lives. The last area is Personal. This is where meaning is derived from actions employees take to improve their own lives.


Cognitive crafting would help the employee see, for example, that the tasks necessary to get a customer’s order correct are essential to satisfying a customer's hunger. And while the customer waits, the employee can make her feel welcome by making small talk.


The value of job crafting to workplace optimism is in its collaborative nature: Employee and manager work together to make alterations to the task, relational, or cognitive attributes of work.


Employees “get their fingerprints” on work, deepening their ownership of one of the biggest influences on their lives.


The Individual domain will help you ask questions about an employee's sense of self at work, such as, “How do you view your accomplishments over the past three months?”


Going a bit deeper, companies like Aetna have incorporated mindfulness and meditation practices. Such practices help a person increase his self-awareness. Aetna touts benefits, from employees being more present-minded to being easier to work with.



In our interview, Alice Cabrera of Thesis scientist distinguished for me the difference between a working player and a team player. A work player is someone who shows up to do the work, does just what’s expected with minimal interaction with others, and has little engagement with the workplace.


Conversely, a team player is someone who does work collaboratively, builds relationships across the organization and in his team, and goes beyond what’s expected.


These players see where opportunities are to step up, and they direct their strengths and skills to help the team and to demonstrate their passion. You don’t want work players on your assignments or projects;


for them, work is merely something to check off a list. You want the passion of team players to identify, plan, implement, and monitor the work needed for results. While employees explore and are curious.


This is where your responsibility factors into the work equation. Team players contribute more than just their skills and strengths. Research from Deloitte’s Center for the Edge identifies three attributes for employees it calls explorers. The three attributes are a commitment to the domain, questing, and connecting.


Commitment to the domain is a team player’s drive to deepen her knowledge in a particular business domain. These employees remain in what I call wisdom loops, constant learning, and growth cycle that contributes tremendous value to the team and the organization, and is satisfying for the employee.


“Commitment to domain helps individuals focus on where they can make the most impact,” said the researchers from Deloitte. This is where purpose and passion come together. The powerful combination is what keeps team players engaged in their wisdom loop and “constantly seeking lessons and innovative practices” from other domains.


The questing attribute, or inclination, is marked by a proactive, curious exploration of one’s work even if it takes the team player outside his core responsibilities.


The type of work it is plays an important role. It needs to be challenging and align with the team’s an organization's purpose. This is the fundamental shift in how leaders view the work their people do.


Rather than focusing on assignments, stewards create the conditions that give their employees the room to explore and be curious. Additionally, stewards take the time to learn what the domain’s expert skills are for their team members.


This insight is leveraged to position the team for creating maximum impact through its work. But the benefits go deeper than results.


The work becomes deeply gratifying for team members. Work becomes art.  Not art as in a painting, but the finesse a person shows in connecting the intention and outcomes of the work to the people who will benefit from it. No longer is the work done for some faceless end user.


It’s created with passion, intention, and delight for a customer who has a personal history, needs, hopes, and dreams. In short, today’s employees, or team players, want to create something that can be offered up, as if to say, “Look, I made this for you.”


For work to be an artistic expression, it’s important to find ways to reframe how you view it. Work is not something to be assigned.

In all its beauty and complexity, work is a personal expression stamped by the expertise, experiences, and education—formal and/or informal—of each person on your team. This requires that you link outcomes to strengths and passions, domain expertise, exploration and curiosity, and connection.



  1. “I want to make things better for people.” “We are responsible for protecting our brand.”
  2. “We’re going to make sure that when people start, they know that they’re special.”
  3. “I recognize people [who] haven’t been recognized.”
  4. “I think caring environments are high-accountability environments.”
  5. “My purpose is to connect with people.
  6. “Witness and be part of people who are really proud and excited about what they’re doing or what they’ve accomplished.”


This is what meaning sounds like. In optimistic climates, meaning transforms the interactions between people; there’s a familiar feel to interactions. People want to be around each other. The history between people and groups or teams is held with positive regard. Meaning can be experienced from the good times, as reflected in the quotes above.


However, meaning can also be experienced from difficult times that bring people together. Meaning and meaningful work have a lasting impression on us. Meaning becomes folded into the interactions you and your team have that elevate everyone to higher levels of self-awareness and performance.


Workplace optimism is how employees feel about the environment. When at work they feel hopeful, believe that good things are possible. To that end, meaning and meaningful work contribute to this perception of workplace optimism. The reason for the focus on meaning is its enduring qualities and positive influence on helping people live up to their potential.


Focus on how work can positively influence employees’ family life and health. BambooHR’s anti-workaholic policy is a nice way to strongly nudge employees to get their work done in 40 hours. That, however, is not the reason for its creation.


The start-up’s co-founders, Ben Peterson, and Ryan Sanders want employees to have time for their families and participate in activities that bring them happiness. The belief is that if family needs are tended to, employees will be better able to focus on doing great work. It’s a mutually beneficial arrangement. 


Learn and leverage employees’ strengths.

Strengths are not what your employees are good at—they are what energizes them. According to Gallup research, the more hours people use their strengths “to do what they do best, the less likely they are to report experiencing worry, stress, anger, sadness, or physical pain.”


Again according to Gallup, those who use their strengths 10 hours or more a day experience less worry, stress, and those other emotions listed.


Ten hours may seem like a long time. Strengths, however, don’t only apply to work. They count when employees use their strengths outside work, too. This is further reason why it’s important to help employees find the right mixture of time working and spending time with family. Finally, how employees feel about the work environment is directly linked to perceptions of their boss.


While this isn’t a new insight, it serves as a valuable reminder and it positions learning how to leverage employees’ strengths as one way to have a connected relationship with them.


It makes sense to leverage employees’ strengths to help them grow. When you help employees grow, you increase the meaning they feel from their work.


Prevent moral bankruptcy

Meaning is strangled by morally bankrupt leadership actions. Without exception, these actions reflect 20th-­century management practices such as profit-first or shareholder-value-first perspectives, overly short-term thinking, self-interested actions, or unbending viewpoints on the leader’s role to shape the culture and climate.

Financial decisions are made without significant consideration of the implications for people. 


Express genuine appreciation to employees

In my work with clients, a lack of expressed appreciation from leadership is a common concern employee has. According to a study by Ken Blanchard Companies, an environment that is safe, open, and welcoming is what makes a company a special place to work.


This is an outcome of expressing appreciation to employees. Think of a time when you worked hard on something for your boss and received no acknowledgment. Sure, it’s your responsibility to do your best work.


Yet the appreciation signals your boss cares. Without the expression of appreciation, you are likely to become ambivalent toward what good work is, what it means, or if your work is acceptable or could improve. Researcher Barbara Fredrickson says appreciation is a positive emotion that can leave people feeling safe and satisfied.


Furthermore, “positive emotions have a complementary effect. They broaden people’s momentary thought-action repertoires, widening the array of thoughts and actions that come to mind.” When you express appreciation, it inspires others to do the same; it’s leadership karma: Do something positive for someone and she will likely do the same.


Making Work Meaningful

While you can’t make work meaningful for employees, you can create the conditions for it. Meaningful work can become a source of joy in employees’ lives. Max DePree, former CEO of Miller Furniture, says in his book leadership Is an Art, “Work should be and can be productive and rewarding, meaningful and maturing, enriching and fulfilling, healing and joyful.”


Yet meaning is central to the efforts of unleashing human potential and, thus, to workplace optimism. More people at every level of an organization, no matter its size, deserve the opportunity to uncover the deeply gratifying feeling that stems from meaningful work. You play a pivotal role in this opportunity.


Your part is to help shape the context for meaningful work to emerge. It’s important to know how to make work meaningful so you can fulfill your role as a meaning maker. Let’s look at the key actions of meaning makers:


Meet people’s basic needs

In terms of how employees perceive the climate at work, safety needs are key: Do employees feel secure in their work? Are expectations clear? Is there consistency in how you show up as a leader? Are your expectations of people clear and consistent? These are basic needs employees expect to be met.


If they are not, their absence becomes a distraction and adversely influences how employees perceive you and the environment. Consequently, meaningful work may be difficult to achieve.


When basic needs are met, your team members can shift their focus to higher levels of functioning, helping them to do their work better, experience higher levels of happiness, and uncover meaning in what they do.


Make room for autonomous work

A deeper look at autonomy reveals that we all want to contribute to something important, bigger than ourselves. We want to achieve such outcomes by figuring out how best to do it. When industrial-era mindsets in management prevail, the command-and-­ control manager fails to see the humanity in his role.


There is no emphasis placed on employees’ needs to make a difference through their work. Today, having autonomy means team members can rely on their experiences and use their ideas to leave their mark. The intrinsic motivation inherent in autonomy is a source of fulfillment and helps employees find meaning.


Invite people to be in on things

Too many organizations suffer from the death of clear communications. The causes? Too much bureaucracy, a hierarchy that hinders timely progress, inadequate communication channels, and stifling silos.


Employees want to believe they are in on decisions and hear news in a timely manner. When it doesn’t happen, the rumor mill becomes a reliable source for information. Trust is negatively impacted. 


Additionally, you can combat the killing of clear communications by communicating information sooner rather than later.


Give people the freedom to express themselves. Rosa Lopez is the office manager at thesis scientist. When I asked her about why the work environment there is positive, she quickly explained the importance of self-expression. In any situation and with any person, employees feel free to express their ideas, concerns, and thoughts.


Rosa said this is because people believe the environment is safe. Meaningful work emerges when people know they can share what’s on their mind and that a pink slip won’t be on their desk the next day, or they won’t be made to feel shame for speaking out.


A strong steward diligently and intentionally influences the environment so that people aren’t afraid to express their ideas.


Model values-based leadership 

Learn what your employees’ personal values are.  Discuss with your employees how their personal values show up in their work and where they are absent.


Have employees compare their personal values to the organizations. Discuss what insights this holds for them. Work becomes meaningful when it is clear how it aligns with what the employee values.


Hold regular one-on-ones

At least monthly, discuss employees’ progress in achieving their performance goals. Hold employees accountable for their growth commitments


These actions are of the highest value in creating an optimistic workplace. By adding them to your stewardship routines, you shift work away from a physical place to one in which employees’ strengths and talents can be expressed.


The latter is linked to meaningful work; it’s an expression of a person’s collective experiences transferred into something of value. In the end, we all want to know that what we do is useful. Meaning is born from this.


Bamboo Love is contagious

It’s a term of endearment BambooHR employees use to describe their hyper-focus on making their software easy to use. The logic is much like that of Menlo Innovations.


It’s a customer service philosophy of a higher order. The hard work is worth the effort because the outcome is meaningful. Bamboo Love is what colors the work with meaning.


What is your motivation to find meaningful work and create the context for your team to discover or more deeply explore it? This isn’t a question of carrots and sticks. The motivation is more intrinsic. With that in mind, here are a few prompts to help you uncover what intrinsic motivators impel you to be a meaning maker:

  1. What’s in it for you to help others find meaning in their work?
  2. What is your work could help you achieve your highest potential?
  3. How will helping your team align with meaning make your role as a steward more enjoyable?
  4. What’s in it for your team members to find meaning in their work?
  5. How can you help each person on your team achieve her highest potential?
  6. Given your answers, what are the underlying motivators that aren’t extrinsic in nature?


The importance of meaningful work is difficult to measure because of how personal it is. Some may not find it important at all while others will hold it as key to their work experience.


The forward-thinking steward sees the writing on the wall: Meaning will continue to increase in importance over the next 10 or more years. I don’t believe the importance of meaning is limited to a generational era.


It’s a human desire to do something that matters. Millennials are merely forcing the conversation, expecting leaders to understand the implications and then do something about it.



Finding meaning and doing meaningful work is a reason for employees to stay with an organization. Rare is the team, or organization for that matter, that offers people the opportunity to explore their potential and do good at the same time. At the heart of meaning is one’s ability to make something that matters.


Even in the work of flipping burgers, one can find meaning. It’s not that flipping burgers are someone’s calling. What makes meaning so important is its transformative influence on how we work and relate to one another.


Making meaning doesn’t focus on the outcome of employees’ work; it’s about the work experience. The most powerful experience is one that helps employees become better human beings.


The uniting influence meaning has on how we work, relate to one another, and realize our potential is the spark that turns ordinary teams into extraordinarily coordinated powerhouses. Here are some benefits for the steward who is willing to do good by being a meaning maker:


Goal-directed behaviors become the norm

Because meaning enriches the work experience, people are prone to get involved more deeply in their work and take greater care in doing a great job.


Baumeister found that “the pursuit of goals and fulfillment through ongoing involvement and activities that are interlinked” were central to meaningfulness.


People become flux-life tolerant

Baumeister also found that meaning-fulness provided greater stability in the face of changes, or what he called the “flux of life.”24 Business environments are perpetually in a state of flux.


Teams made up of people who can find stability in the face of constant change has a performance advantage over those who deny or resist the realities of change.


Stewardship contributes to society’s sustainability.

Corporate social responsibility is becoming increasingly important to employees. At the organizational level, those who deliberately work to help employees find fulfillment in their efforts are likely to also make lives better in their community or in society.


Employees achieve a laser-focused ambition.

Certainly, making a sale or serving a customer is important to a business’s longevity. Without meaning, the impact of this work could be lost to monotony. With meaning, people are more driven to raise their performance. Ambition levels are higher in employees who find meaning in their work.


Meaningfulness is a bright spot in creating workplace optimism. But the meaning has little to do with money. It has to do with standing up for something of importance and throwing yourself into its service.


While the critics of meaning may say it’s nonsensical stuff that has no room in today’s workplace, a growing number of people, of all ages, are raising their hand to say, “I want fulfillment from my work.”


Some of those raising their hands are willing to forgo more money. Meaningfulness isn’t just about what you or I experience today. It paves the way for those who come after us to have a work experience that’s positive and rewarding.



In today’s fragmented marketplaces and hypercompetitive business environments, it is increasingly more important to change the way we work. Organizations respond to these external influences with a sense of urgency that also characterizes the nature of work: Get things done quickly. Deliver results efficiently.


The work needed to meet business demands is too often robbed of enjoyment. Despite the impact meaning and purpose has on work, organizations and leaders have been slow to acknowledge their importance and influence. There is hardly enough time to savor the artistry in work. It’s buried beneath the rapid pace of getting things done.


Employees are overwhelmed, stressed, burned out, and disillusioned with their ability to positively make a difference through their work. Yet the relationship employees have with work, the pace and quantity of it, and how they achieve desired outcomes is central to cultivating workplace optimism. Leaders need to improve how employees relate to and go about doing their best work.


The Financial domain may seem to be the odd one among the five. However, it is arguably the most important one in the mix. Without healthy financials, an organization’s ability to do innovative, creative work is crippled.


Also, employees typically suffer from little opportunity to grow when an organization is underperforming financially, which diminishes the powerful effects of the other four domains.


Also, important in this domain is the leadership’s ability to balance short-term and long-term financial perspectives. Too often organizations look to the short term to assess the value of work.


For example, shareholder value, often a short-term financial return, is too often considered first before evaluating the long-term value a project might have on the organization.


The Aspirational, Individual, Social, and Environmental domains more directly influence an employee’s relationship with her work. Aspirational, Individual, and Social are often personal for employees, who are the direct beneficiaries.


As a steward, you have the greatest influence on the Environmental domain. This domain’s effects on people are significant, and, I might add, often misunderstood and underestimated.


Organizational Benefits

The domains are intended to guide you through how to identify and explain the value of work for both the organization and employees. When work is crafted to promote the Aspirational, Individual, Social, and Environmental domains, it helps increase the meaningfulness of the work.


Increased motivation is often attributed to the Aspirational domain; employees want to make a difference in their work and have an impact on others, both sources of intrinsic motivation.


Here’s an example of how the presence of the five domains can make a difference. At PepsiCo, a program called Performance with Purpose shapes the work of employees. More than a program, Performance with Purpose is a set of beliefs.


Whether PepsiCo is focusing on human sustainability (Social domain) or talent sustainability (Individual domain), it makes decisions to do good for its customers (Aspirational domain) and those who create the value for the organization—the employees.


With a comprehensive set of initiatives—ranging from corporate governance to supply-chain diversity to workplace diversity—PepsiCo positions itself for financial performance.


According to a 2013 PepsiCo report, 89 percent of the company’s employees, including executives, feel pride in their work (Environmental domain) and in what the organization accomplishes through its many efforts to improve the communities it serves and create a workplace environment that motivates and inspires employees.


With an emphasis on the Financial and Aspirational domains, PepsiCo’s CEO, Indra K. Nooyi, keeps her sights on the company’s Performance with Purpose to help maintain its competitive advantage. The performance with Purpose is PepsiCo’s contract with society.


Make Work Meaningful

The difference between work and meaningful work is the influence it has on the person. Meaningful work has significance. The reasons for doing it matter and expand a person’s potential. Work without meaning is merely something to cross off a to-do list. There is little productive emotional investment in the work.


Rather than contribute to employee growth, work without meaning drains and stagnates employee potential.  Notice I say “create the conditions.” Ultimately, it is up to each person to determine what is meaningful work. Yet what is powerful about climate is that you can influence it through workplace positivity.


We all want to mean in our lives, both personally and professionally. Meaning, like purpose, is a leadership focus with the intention to support team members’ pursuit of it in all areas of their lives.