Summary of What Makes Work Meaningful – or Meaningless

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Most people want to feel their work has meaning, and they perform better when they do. But can managers enhance employees’ sense of meaningfulness? Catherine Bailey of the University of Sussex and Adrian Madden of the University of Greenwich studied what creates – and destroys – a sense of meaningfulness at work. In a fascinating report published in the MIT Sloan Management Review, the authors suggest actions managers can take to foster meaningfulness – and the demoralizing missteps they should avoid.

About the Authors

Catherine Bailey is a professor in the department of business and management at the University of Sussex in Brighton, United Kingdom. Adrian Madden is a senior lecturer in the department of human resources and organizational behavior at the business school of the University of Greenwich in London.



People find meaning in their work in profoundly personal ways.

The feeling of doing a job that has meaning often stems from pride in accomplishment, performing satisfying work, and gaining recognition or praise. Yet these by themselves don’t guarantee a sense of meaningfulness. Often, a sense of meaningfulness accompanies transcendence of the self – arising when people see how their work matters to others, society or the environment.

For example, a garbage collector described feeling that his work mattered when he thought about how his work helps create a cleaner world for his grandchildren. Positive interactions can also generate a sense of meaningfulness. A sales associate felt meaningfulness when she worked on an exhausting task in a team setting...

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