Meaningful work is a very vague term. For many, it is tied to influencing humanity and the world in a positive way. In other words, the outcome of the work that is done is realized or measured by social impact. Often organizations who aspire to do “meaningful work” will be categorized as social enterprises, whether operating as for-profit or not-for-profit.

I like to think of meaningful work differently. In addition to the more traditional definition where the end product of the work product itself is defined as meaningful, I like to think about performing the work being a meaningful experience in and of itself. The same fundamental values apply in terms of having a positive impact on people, influencing the human condition, and in general, having a positive impact on the world. In other words, I like to think of all work having the potential to be meaningful, but the meaning is derived from the way work is performed.

In other words, meaningfulness is not a destination, but a journey. If we look at it this way, regardless of the job description or organizational objectives of whoever pays your salary, we each have the opportunity to make a meaningful impact on a daily basis in the performance of our duties.

Let’s say I am a flight attendant. If an airline emergency occurs and I am called upon to do what I’m truly there for and was actually trained to do…facilitate passenger safety and mitigate harm…of course my work is meaningful. But the bulk of my time on the job (hopefully) I will not be called upon to perform this “meaningful work”. Instead my role is to support passenger safety and comfort in less visibly “meaningful” ways.

As a flight attendant, then, I have the option to look at my work situation in one of two ways:

  1. My work is meaningless because I am seen as little more than a flying waitress, or
  2. I choose to make my work meaningful by positively impacting the people I come in contact each day

I’m pretty sure any of us could cite situations where we have interacted with flight attendants at each end of this spectrum.

So consider this…how many lives does a flight attendant touch in the course of a day? The potential for a single flight attendant to have a meaningfully positive interaction with other human beings on a daily basis is extraordinary! So what determines whether that flight attendant’s work day is meaningful?

I would contend that whether or not individuals are performing meaningful work is not so much dependent on the job description or the work product itself, but rather on the conscious decision we make about how to perform our work more meaningfully.

It is part of the human condition to “seek” meaning. What if, instead of seeking meaningful work, we all chose to perform our work more meaningfully in terms of human interaction? Imagine the significance of the impact in your workplace if you and your colleagues each made the conscious decision at the start of each day to work more meaningfully.

Photo courtesy of Amodiovalerio Verde on Flickr Creative Commons.

Shirley Stoltenberg

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