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What gives you a sense of meaning in your work?

According to David Graeber, many people have pointless jobs which exist merely to serve unnecessary bureaucratic processes.

Have you ever reflected on your own work, and what it is about it specifically that creates (or inhibits) meaning for you?

How can we create more meaning for other people in their work?

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  • Steve Bridger

    | 8711 Posts

    Community Manager

    5 Jul, 2018 08:20

    In reply to Keith:

    I agree with a lot of what you say, Keith - particularly with regards 'paying the bills'. I certainly agree with Ray in that a challenge for employers is to ensure employees see the meaning in their work through the impact that is has. Hopefully a positive impact.
  • Robey

    | 1930 Posts

    Chartered Member

    5 Jul, 2018 11:35

    To the OP, HR has an obligation to play a role (and a relatively important one, at that) in creating meaningful work, to the extent that it is simply good business sense to be sure that every job in an organization makes a meaningful contribution towards that company's success, however it chooses to measure success.

    But creating meaningful work and "creating meaning for people in their work" are not the same thing. I believe that it is fundamentally down to the individual employee to find his or her own meaning in what they do. An enlightened and cash-rich employer might well put some time and investment into helping activities like mindfulness or coaching to help people learn the tools to find such meaning but the actual task of finding it isn't one that can be outsourced, to HR or anyone else!

    On the topic of BS jobs, though, one of my first jobs was taking socks out of one box, changing the labels, and putting them back into another box. I was the sole employee of a subsidiary company within the company that owned the warehouse where I worked and, as a result, worked in an entirely different part of the warehouse from everyone else and never saw another person all day long. I found meaning in listening to Radio 4 for eight hours a day and in the benefits of cycling there and back every day. Not much meaning to be found in socks, to be fair.
  • Keith

    | 11702 Posts

    Chartered Fellow

    5 Jul, 2018 11:41

    In reply to Robey:

    Robey

    I spent the summer between School and University taking things out of opened envelopes. It was when you used to pay your credit card bill by cheque and you sent in a cheque and a paying in slip. The machine cut the top of the envelope and you extracted the two bits of paper and separated them into two separate piles.

    If we were really lucky at the end of the day we got to go through the huge sacks of envelopes to check nothing had been left behind! Now of course all superseeded by online payments and technology!

    It was money in the bank and nothing more.

    Keith

  • Steve Bridger

    | 8711 Posts

    Community Manager

    5 Jul, 2018 11:53

    In reply to Robey:

    Robey

    Not much meaning to be found in socks, to be fair.

    https://www.stand4socks.com/

    The revolution has to start somewhere ;)

  • Peter Stanway

    | 8011 Posts

    Chartered Fellow

    6 Jul, 2018 14:12

    In reply to Robey:

    I like you being the sole employee in socks
  • Peter Stanway

    | 8011 Posts

    Chartered Fellow

    6 Jul, 2018 14:39

    In reply to Steve Bridger:

    The other issue for me is that the job may have purpose but how much 'stuff' does get in the way of people doing their best and enjoying work
    We need to ask if we are part of the stuff or there to facilitate
  • David Perry

    | 5414 Posts

    Chartered Member

    7 Jul, 2018 12:15

    In reply to Keith:

    Walmart may have done some research but I can't say I remember being greeted by their staff in  the two or three stores I went to in Canada.

    Surely once the novelty of being greeted by the same old greetings formula, doesn't the experience or novelty wear off?

  • Hullo everyone - I'm a new (student) member to CIPD and the forums.

    My question for David Graeber is... why did he feel he needed a carpenter? Putting up shelves isn't specialist work, yet it sounds like the entire department spent more time demanding a specialist than it would have spent them to learn how to fix the problem safely. The carpenter's role should have been as mentor, to provide safety equipment, knowledge and inspection.

    As for Louisa's question about meaningful work: this is something I thought a lot about when I left my last job. I think "meaning" as your describing is about sehnsucht - that vague feeling of longing for something more. For me, I care about supporting others. So anything where I'm contributing to improving collaboration, transparency and fairness gives me a sense of meaning.

    To feel happy in a job, an employee needs: independence; variation in tasks; a sense of task completion; to feel they're positively contributing; constructive feedback; and to feel they are treated fairly. These are areas where HR can really help.
  • "How can we create more meaning for people in their work?". Simple - kill the five monkeys!

    Pointless jobs and bureaucratic processes are epitomised in 'The Five Monkeys'. This was told to me during an MBA module on commissioning and Local Authorities, and shows how process and following commands stifle thinking and understanding. It goes like this:

    There are 5 monkeys in a cage, with a bunch of bananas hanging from the top and a box underneath the bananas. The first monkey thinks "if I climb on the box I can reach the bananas". It does this, and all the monkeys are drenched in icy water. A bit later the second monkey thinks "if I climb on the box I can reach the bananas"; again they're all drenched in icy water as soon as the monkey's on the box. Some time later the third monkey attempts to climb on the box, but all five monkeys attack to stop it as they don't want the icy water again.

    Time goes by, and the first monkey is removed from the cage and replaced by a new monkey. This new monkey, the sixth one, sees the bananas and the box and thinks "if I climb on the box I can reach the bananas". As soon as a move is made towards the box, the other monkeys attack.

    More time goes by, and the four remaining original monkeys have been replaced by new monkeys. Every new monkey sees the bananas and the box and thinks "if I climb on the box I can reach the bananas". Every time a move is made towards the box, the other monkeys attack. As none of the original monkeys are left the reason for the attack (being drenched by icy water) has been lost. All they know is that if someone moves towards the box you attack.

    If any of them could ask 'why' they'd be told "We've always done it that way".

  • In reply to Robey:

    I agree with Robey in that meaning within work isn’t necessarily doing meaningful work. I have had recent experiences where I was struggling to match my personal values with that of the organisation or to be more specific, the values of the leadership team. As I’ve grown both personally and professionally I’ve come to understand and be able to articulate my own values well and in all that I do, that’s what drives me. In Myers Briggs, I’m an “NF” and so think globally and champion people and values. So I always go beyond the task at hand and consider how, what I do benefits society. As an HR Practitioner, I see it as my job to help others understand this link, including the leadership team, where relevant. It is fascinating (and exciting to me) to watch the “a ha” moment and buzz some people get when they see the link between what they do and the contribution their work brings to the wider organisation and society at large, if they haven’t yet worked it out. I’m sure many readers are familiar with Simon Sinek and his excellent TED talks but his one on “start with why?” was transformational for me and has a powerful but simple message. In my view, purpose before profit wins over every time. And as one post points out, somebody humping bins in the freezing cold during winter may even draw some meaning from what they do, in as much as, they are helping to keep their community clean and tidy.
  • Steve Bridger

    | 8711 Posts

    Community Manager

    18 Aug, 2018 16:05

    In reply to Simon:

    Nice post, Simon.
  • In reply to Steve Bridger:

    Thank you. :-)
  • David

    | 21896 Posts

    Chartered Member

    18 Aug, 2018 19:35

    In reply to Simon:

    Recall pondering this kind of thing when I first started work in a steelworks.

    Workers who worked directly in the primary operations - tending the blast furnaces and steel making vessels were to me remarkably different in their motivations and outlook from those whose work was more indirect than this, such as driving locomotives or material handling or on production lines applying finishing touches to the plant's products.

    The former tended to be very formidable, tough, down to earth characters - frightening to me at first, but once I got to know them, absolutely straight and honest whilst dealing with the latter was like interacting with a slippery bunch of cheating and untrustworthy spivs. Obviously I exaggerate to make the point, but, believe me, only a little.

    Similarly, it always motivated me considerably especially in times of trouble that here I was contributing towards something very fundamental and very worthwhile - making good iron and steel; helping provide the backbone of almost all of industry. I was thankful that I wasn't tasked with successfully making or promoting the sales of such as sweets or choccie bars or tins of petfood. That wouldn't be nearly as satisfying, to the point where I didn't know if I'd be able to live with myself having sold my soul to such as these trivial and non-essential pursuits.

    Similarly too, an old schoolfriend who happened to have a gifted scientific brain around the same time was offered handsome funding to pursue a PhD - but it was all about researching how to make ice cream taste smoother - making its cheap and unhealthy constituents seem 'creamy' to all the punters and thus helping to swell the coffers of some confectionery conglomerate. To his credit, he turned it down in favour of a far less lucrative but more fulfilling project.

    I bang on sometimes about the insights into such as this offered by a now very old but still immensely relevant study - a book called 'The Homeless Mind' by Berger, Berger and Kellner: IMHO it's well worth a read.....
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