Research has shown that people need both meaning at work and meaning in work. The leader plays and enormous role in ensuring that employees realise their need for meaning. While work is a means to an end, at the same time it is much more, it is a means of self expression and fulfilment. In a 2006 study by The Work Foundation, 51% of people said that work was a means to an end, 69% said that their work was a source of personal fulfilment and a massive 86% resisted the notion that work was meaningless.

It is essential that leaders communicate a sense of purpose to their followers. Equally it is important for leaders to figure out what each individual finds meaningful (would find meaningful) at work. The consequences of a workforce without meaning are non-engagement and active disengagement. The risk to organisational results is too high for leaders to ignore the need for individuals to have meaning at work. The capacity to develop within followers a strong sense of meaning at work needs to form part of any contemporary leadership training program.

Over the past two decades there has been a reasonable amount of research into meaning at work. In their 2010 paper titled “On the Meaning of Work: A Theoretical Integration and Review”, Rosso, Dekas and Wrzesniewski examine six key mechanisms of meaning at work. They then integrate these mechanisms to describe four pathways to meaning at work. The beauty of this latest work is that it accounts for they ways that different individuals experience meaning at work and in their work. It highlights that meaning is not a one size fits all concept and provides a theoretical base for leaders to consider how they can best establish a sense of meaning at work for all of their followers.

The six mechanisms of meaning are;

1. Authenticity – am I being true to myself?

  • Am I behaving consistently with my interests and values at work (self-concordance)
  • Am I verifying/activating/affirming my valued personal identities (identity affirmation)
  • Am I personally engaged and intrinsically motivated at work (personal engagement)

2. Self Efficacy – do I believe I can produce the intended outcome and make a difference?

  • Do I have a sense of personal control or autonomy at work?
  • Do I experience a sense of competence as a result of overcoming challenges at work?
  • Do I feel that I am having a positive impact and making a difference at work?

3. Self Esteem – my assessment of my own self worth

4. Purpose – Why do we do what we do> What legacy are we leaving?

  • How significant is my work?
  • What value systems guide our journey

5. Belongingness – membership in, identification with and connection to a number of social groups at work

  • Social identification – being part of various groups at work
  • Interpersonal contentedness – quality of relationships at work

6. Transcendence – perusing the ‘greater good’

  • Interconnection – contributing to a cause greater than self
  • Self-abnegation – subordinating personal ego in order to achieve a purpose greater than self

These sources of meaning at work can be plotted on two axis to form four major pathways to meaningful work. The first axis describes the motives behind the mechanisms of meaning i.e. a drive to differentiate or a drive to unite. The second axis looks at whether the actions are directed towards self or others. See diagram below for a graphic representation the different mechanism of meaning are used to achieve four pathways to meaning at work.

The conclusion for leaders is that they can dramatically impact on the degree of meaning that their people experience at work. This is a vital key for improving engagement levels and overall performance. Leaders need to consider the individuals development (self esteem, authenticity and self efficacy), the interpersonal climate (identity, fit, connection), and the articulation of the team/organisations higher purpose and values.