Finding Meaning In Your Workplace
By michael mahan
September 7, 2010
We spend almost a third of our week at work. With so much of our time—of our life—dedicated to work, shouldn’t it be a significant part of how we make a difference in this world?
A survey conducted by Lynne Lancaster and David Stillman (authors of The M-Factor) found that meaning in the workplace is beyond important for most of us; it is the most important aspect of work. More than money or benefits, making a difference is fundamental. Many of us would even take a lower paying, harder or more banal job if it gave us a clear sense of meaning.
If you are having a hard time finding meaning at work, you are not alone. The issue’s importance vexes just about everyone. It is a Christian concern as well, dating back at least to the writing of Ecclesiastes. True meaning is important. And discovering the significance of those 40 hours we spend each week in the “second place” can be fundamental to our sense of well being.
Studies in leadership (which curiously echoes of Scriptural values) can provide some insight into finding meaning in the workplace. Here are four suggestions that might just make a difference.
Discover your personal meaning and relate it to your job. Discovering what we are about is fundamental to finding any sense of significance. Kevin Cashman, author of Leadership from the Inside Out, asks a simple question: “What is your unique, meaningful contribution?” What is it that makes you different from everyone else?
Jesus Himself was clear about His mission. As He took on the role of Savior, He formulated a clear sense of purpose: “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Jesus knew what He was about and why He was on this earth. Follow Jesus’ example—and know what you are about. With a bit of honesty, you can find your own mission with just a few questions. What one idea permeates your existence? What guides all that you do?
Relating your mission to your job is fundamental to finding meaning at work. Your personal mission should have some connection to the work you do. If the job is only a means to financial stability, it may be time to find a job that relates to your purpose.
Understand your role in a holistic perspective. There is always some product or service ultimately linked to any job. We often get left by the wayside, but practically every role contributes to some good or service. That end product can actually be the answer to your meaning.
Consider the case of Medtronic. Workers man assembly lines, constructing tiny devices in a tedious environment. Long shifts and zero error tolerance exacerbate the situation. Yet employees not only tend to not leave their jobs, they find meaning and satisfaction.
Medtronic produces heart valves. Every employee knows he or she doesn’t simply do assembly line work. They aren’t just making devices—they are saving human lives. Now that is a job that matters.
Medtronic also assures that employees get the big picture. Every year a party with the recipients of the heart valves provides an opportunity to know and see the actual lives saved.
This example—of seeing the outcomes of the workplace—is a great example to follow. If you want to know how your contribution changes the world, look at the faces your job touches. Meet the people you help and connect your job to that global perspective.
Take some lessons from servant leadership. Leadership expert Kathleen Patterson describes a servant leader as one who focuses on others, so that they “are the primary concern and the organizational concerns are secondary.” The servant leader uses moral love, humility, altruism, vision for the followers, trust and empowerment in order to serve others.
Not everyone is in a leader position, but everyone does influence others. Choose to influence others through service. It wasn’t too good for Christ; it shouldn’t be too good for us.
Serving may not be the easiest road, but it could be the most filled with meaning. Dan Sanders (CEO of United Supermarkets) concludes that any job, whether as a pilot for Southwest Airlines or as a checker at the grocery store, is fulfilling when it is linked to service. We are created to serve. Commit to the Lord whatever you do, serve others as serving Him, and some sense of meaning cannot evade you.
Enjoy the ride. Many of us in corporate settings tend to value accomplishments—at times beyond anything else. We are achievers. We like to meet deadlines and exceed expectations. We become task-oriented and feel joy only for brief periods, when a project is brought to completion. If we only experience joy when we finish a job, according to Kevin Cashman, we have a problem with personal mastery.
After all, getting to the goal is not all that exists. Sometimes the trip is just as great as the destination. If vacation was only composed of the arrival at a destination and getting back home, what rest would it give? Vacation is about the trip, and work can be the same, if we choose to find meaning in the process rather than just the product.
Finding meaning in the workplace isn’t easy, but it is probably among the most important things we can do. It can give us joy and render a hard job a real treasure. While there is no simple plan to seeing the significance in the workplace, these simple tenets can give us a start. Relate your own purpose to your job. See the big picture. When all else fails, serve. Enjoy the ride. And remember—it’s not really the job that matters. You matter.