The No. 1 Feature of a Meaningless Job
One factor matters more than any other for a sense of purpose at work.
Posted January 30, 2014
Ask people what they want in a job, and meaningfulness looms large. For decades, Americans have ranked purpose as their top priority—above promotions, income, job security, and hours. Work is a search “for daily meaning as well as daily bread,” wrote Studs Turkel after interviewing hundreds of people in a striking array of jobs. Yet all too often, we feel that our work doesn’t matter. “Most of us have jobs that are too small for our spirit. Jobs are not big enough for people.”
What makes a job meaningless? After more than 40 years of research, we know that people struggle to find meaning when they lack autonomy, variety, challenge, performance feedback, and the chance to work on a whole product or service from start to finish. As important as these factors are, though, there’s another that matters more.
Consider the following jobs. They all meet some of the criteria above, yet about 90% of people fail to find them highly meaningful:
- Fashion designer
- TV newscast director
- Revenue analyst
- Web operations coordinator
- Airline reservation agent
- Graphics animator
Why is meaning missing in these jobs? They rarely have a significant, lasting impact on other people. If these jobs didn’t exist, people wouldn’t be all that much worse off. By contrast, here are the jobs that are highly meaningful to virtually everyone who holds them:
- Adult literacy teacher
- Fire chief
- Nurse midwife
- Addiction counselor
- Child life specialist
They all make an important difference in the lives of others. Not convinced yet? Here’s a taste of the evidence on the link between helping others and meaningful work:
- A comprehensive analysis of data from more than 11,000 employees across industries: the single strongest predictor of meaningfulness was the belief that the job had a positive impact on others.
- Interviews with a representative sample of Americans: more than half reported that the core purpose of their jobs was to benefit others
- Surveys of people around the world: in defining when an activity qualifies as work, “if it contributes to society” was the most common choice in the U.S.—but also in China and Eastern Europe. On multiple continents, people defined work more in terms of contributing to society than as getting paid for a task, doing a strenuous activity, or being told what to do.
- Studies of people who view their work as a calling, not only a job or career: Yale professor Amy Wrzesniewski, widely regarded as the world’s leading expert on the meaning of work, shows that a core element of a calling is the belief that your work makes the world a better place.
Enriching the Meaningfulness of a Job
Becoming a neurosurgeon isn’t for everyone. The good news is that there are steps we can take to make jobs more meaningful—for ourselves and others.
In many cases, our jobs do have an impact, but we’re too distant from the end users of our products and services. Think of automotive safety engineers who never meet the drivers of their cars or medical scientists who don’t see a patient. By connecting directly with these end users, we can see our past and potential impact. When university fundraisers met a single student whose scholarship was funded by their work, they increased 142% in weekly phone minutes and over 400% in weekly revenue. When radiologists saw a patient’s photo included in an x-ray file, they wrote 29% longer reports and made 46% more accurate diagnoses.
This is why leaders at John Deere invite employees who build tractors to meet the farmers who buy their tractors, leaders at Facebook invite software developers to hear from users who have found long-lost friends and family members thanks to the site, and leaders at Wells Fargo film videos of customers describing how low-interest loans have rescued them from debt. When we see the direct consequences of our jobs for others, we find greater meaning. “The greatest untapped source of motivation,” Susan Dominus explains, “is a sense of service to others.”
Of course, some jobs are simply not designed to have a major impact on others. In these situations, people often make the mistake of treating their job descriptions as fixed, overlooking the fact that they can take initiative to alter their own roles. Wrzesniewski, Jane Dutton, and Justin Berg call this job crafting—adding, emphasizing, revising, delegating, or minimizing tasks and interactions in pursuit of greater meaning. For example, hospital cleaners who lack patient contact stepped up to provide emotional support to patients and their families, and technology associates began volunteering for mentoring, teaching, and training roles.
When people craft their jobs, they become happier and more effective. In an experiment at Google, colleagues and I invited salespeople and administrators to spend 90 minutes doing the Job Crafting Exercise—they mapped out ways to make their tasks and interactions more meaningful and contribute more to others. Six weeks later, their managers and coworkers rated them as happier and more effective. When they developed new skills to support more significant changes, the happiness and performance gains lasted for at least six months.
Like all things in life, meaning can be pushed too far. As the psychologist Brian Little observes, if we turn our trivial pursuits into magnificent obsessions, we gain meaning at the price of manageability. When the weight of the world is on our shoulders, we place ourselves at risk for burnout.
Yet most people are facing the opposite problem in their jobs, of too little meaning rather than too much. Against this backdrop, the chance to help others can be what makes our work worthwhile. “Suffering ceases to be suffering once it finds a meaning,” wrote Viktor Frankl in Man’s Search For Meaning. “Being human always points, and is directed, to something or someone, other than oneself—be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself—by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love—the more human he is.”