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joy at work

In Search of Meaningful Work

joy at work leadership Mar 15, 2021

Written by Roxanne Brown

Imagine this: You love your work. You love being absorbed by it. You feel your life’s purpose reflected in the work you do and you can see the impact it’s having. Your family and friends are proud of you and the work you do. They can see why it’s important, why it drives you. Even on those most hair-raising days leaving you completely rung out you still feel deep satisfaction because you know your energy and time are worth the effort. 
Nirvana, right? Maybe this is you today. Or, maybe this was you at some point in the past. Maybe it's something you wish for. The question is, how can you cultivate meaningful work?
Turns out even if you don’t have a deep, meaningful connection to your work today, there are still ways to bring meaning into your world of work without leaving your current position.
Like what? Well, you could…

  • Slowly expand the time you spend on the more meaningful parts of your work
  • Spend more time working with the people you’re inspired by
  • Choose to involve yourself in the work experiences that are most meaningful
  • Look for ways to reframe your work to connect it to the things that matter most to you

Of course, this assumes you’re in touch with what makes work meaningful to you. If you’d like to explore that a bit….

  • Are you sitting at your desk? If so, take a look at your surroundings. What do you see that has meaning for you and why?
  • Are you mobile at the moment? Take a look inside your work bag. What do you keep with you that’s meaningful and why is it meaningful? What do you have as a screensaver? What does that say about what's meaningful to you?
  • Here’s something fun…for the next week, take note of when you spontaneously smile or laugh while at work, those times when you really feel joy. What’s making you happy and why?
  • With this in mind, you may like to create a personal purpose statement.

How can you create meaningful work for your people?
I was surprised by a recent conversation I had with an administrative assistant at a non-profit organization. As part of a meeting series with each member of their 20-person staff, I noticed every person I met with was enthusiastic and highly engaged in where the organization was headed. By the time I met with the administrative assistant (which was after several meetings), I was struck by the difference in energy level and how little he had to share in contrast to the rest of the team. After a while, he revealed that he did not feel his work was particularly meaningful. Exploring this, he said he understood the importance of his role to the organization and he enjoyed working with everyone on the staff. That wasn’t the problem. It seemed to him, though, that all the members of the staff were doing work they were really passionate about. By comparison, his work seemed far less significant. He spoke as if he were resigned to this as if that’s all he could reasonably expect in a role like his compared with the role others played. He actually seemed demoralized! It was such a contract to the rest of the team. Clearly, I was not expecting this.
With his permission, I shared my notes with the leaders of the organization. I just knew the leaders would love to find a way to involve him in projects he would find meaningful. They simply didn’t know how much it mattered to him! And, that’s exactly what they did.
So, what can you do for your people?

  • First, you could find out where they are on the spectrum of what they consider meaningful work. Here’s a brief questionnaire you could use as a discussion tool to talk with people about how meaningful their work is to them today.
  • Discuss what makes work meaningful as part of your regular one-on-one check-ins. Over time you’ll discover what matters most to them about their work.
  • Give your people a little time to pursue things that bring meaning to their work. This does not need to become a distraction for them or take very much time. Even giving them one hour a week to focus on it can be enough to invite a feeling of greater purpose in their world.

And, to prepare for those conversations, here are a couple of things to do in advance and have with you:

  • Connect the values of your organization to the work your people do.
  • Articulate how the work of each person contributes to the cause of your organization.

Imagine how inspiring this would be for your team members to hear from you! People want to feel like they’re part of something important like they’re making a contribution that’s real. They also want to work for an authentic leader so be careful not to manufacture meaning where it doesn’t really exist. You’ll know in your gut if you’re forcing it.
Doing this for your people may help you discover more about what makes work meaningful for you and what areas to expand. With just a little focus, you can make purpose and meaning become more and more integrated into the culture of your team.