What makes work meaningful?
This morning I was looking forward to taking part in a workshop hosted by the Spiritual Capital Foundation led by RSA Fellow Naftali Brawer. Alas, some unexpected and depleting events at home made it difficult for me to attend, and rather than arrive late, flustered, and distracted, I felt the wisest course was to offer my thoughts remotely. So with apologies to Naftali, and the other participants whom I hope to meet later, here is what I would like to have shared.
We were asked to consider a set of questions as a provocation:
- What does meaningful work look like?
Meaning is relational. The point is not so much that personal relationships are meaningful, which is obvious, but more about how different parts of ourselves, domains we operate in, and experiences we regularly have, fit together. Creating meaning at work may not so much be about the explicit purpose of your work activities, but about how your experience of productive activity connects to things you identify with and value.
- How important is the distinction between Work, Job and Career?
Distinctions are only as important as the definitions they rely on, and definitions of anything that really matters – love, wellbeing, wisdom, work – are essentially contested for good reason. I think there can be a wide variety of ways that work can be meaningful and imbued with purpose. We don’t have to rely on the language of ‘career’ or ‘vocation’, because that suggests a relatively linear path of growth, but on the other hand, we probably do need to interrogate the expression “It’s just a job”, because the ‘just’ there has rhetorical force that is not helpful.
- Is work an end in itself of just a means to an end?
Ideally it should be both. Freud’s famous line about love and work being the preconditions for happiness comes to mind.
- Should we bring the whole person to work?
I wonder whether there is a link between the extent to which work is meaningful and the extent to which people are capable of keeping their work and home lives separate.
As much as we can, yes, but we need to respect privacy. And many rely on a strict separation of work and home to function. I wonder, however, whether there is a link between the extent to which work is meaningful and the extent to which people are capable of keeping their work and home lives separate. That would be an interesting question to explore.
- Should work pervade the whole person?
No. Of course it depends on the work, but I think it can take its toll on family and friends if work is all pervading.
- Fragmentation of self and multiple roles
This is the heart of the matter, and links directly to literature on mental complexity which is broadly about our capacity to hold multiple perspectives from a higher-order complexity that allows us to differentiate and integrate them enough to be able to act without falling apart.
Perhaps the key issue about meaning and purpose at work is how we handle the hidden curriculum involved at work – namely what we are tacitly expected to be and know to do the tasks alloted to us. The curriculum at work is, for instance, ‘be congenial, productive, organised, flexible, focussed, cooperative, competitive….’ And then at home the curriculum is be ‘loving, attentive, authoritative, relaxed, available, fun, romantic, organised, forward planning etc’ . In both cases there is also a ‘hidden curriculum’ on what it requires of us to be all of these things, often all at once. This idea of hidden curriculum is developed in great depth in the work of Robert Kegan which we summarised for our report on the psychological demands of the Big Society, but much of the work there is relevant to work more broadly.
Perhaps the key issue about meaning and purpose at work is how we handle the hidden curriculum involved at work – namely what we are tacitly expected to be and know to do the tasks alloted to us.
I think that creating meaning and purpose at work could be about building mental complexity- that this can be something that has genuine value and meaning for people, and can often arise as a collateral benefit of work that might otherwise appear purely instrumental.
- Can/should work be a source of identity?
Of course, but not the only source, not least because it leaves us vulnerable to existential collapse if work goes badly or we lose our jobs.
- Can/should work be a form of creation?
I feel ‘creativity’ is often valorised in ways that are not entirely helpful. I think it is important to have a sense of autonomy, and this allows us to act creatively, but ‘creativity’ as such is not the goal. The goal is more people to experience freedom and know that this freedom has both intrinsic value, in the experience itself, but also extrinsic value in terms of the quality of work that arises from that experience.
I think by this point Naftali would be telling me my five minutes are up, but I would want to squeeze in a mention for The Good Work Project at Harvard which is now a huge body of research and activity. My understanding of its core claim is that Good Work means work that is excellent(high quality), ethical(doesn’t harm, has social value) and engaged(absorbing and meaningful to do).
The theory may have moved on, but the central claim I remember is that good work relates closely to the alignment within any given domain. Broadly, if you, your colleagues, your bosses, your funders, your audience, your stakeholders etc all share the same values and objectives, good work comes relatively easily, but when there is misalingment of objective, values and so worth, good work in that domain is hard, and you are more likely to do ‘compromised work’. The theory and research is more subtle and complicated than that, and I warmly recommend that those interested to know more might watch a former teacher of mine, Howard Gardner, give a talk on the subject here (26.57 minutes in).