This is part of the DR Book Collection.
As some of my past writing should indicate, the concept of meaningful work is a major area of interest for me. What management researchers have found is the prevalence of both intrinsic and prosocial motivation when it comes to constructing meaning at work. As Wharton professor Adam Grant explains, “[P]sychologists have demonstrated that prosocial and intrinsic motivations involve different reasons for expending effort. For intrinsically motivated individuals, effort is based on interest and enjoyment; for prosocially motivated individuals, effort is based on a desire to benefit others.”1 Psychologist Barry Schwartz highlights this kind of research in his short TED book Why We Work. For example, Schwartz explores the impact of “job crafting” and viewing one’s job as a “calling”:
It is people who see their work as a “calling” who find it most satisfying. For them, work is one of the most important parts of life, they are pleased to be doing it, it is a vital part of their identity, they believe their work makes the world a better place, and they would encourage their friends and children to do this kind of work. People whose work is a calling get great satisfaction from what they do (pg. 17).
This outlook is not necessarily brought about by the job description provided by the company, but often through aligning one’s values and job performance with the ultimate purpose (the Aristotelian telos) of the organization. It is especially motivating to be in contact with those who are positively affected by your work. While I at times quibbled with his economic reasoning (or the absence thereof), I was pleased to see Schwartz acknowledge the “positive-sum structure” of market transactions in which everyone benefits:
What this market logic means is that virtually every job that people do can be seen as improving the lives of customers, even if only in small ways. And what that means is that virtually every job that people do can be made meaningful by focusing on the way sin which it improves the lives of customers, as long as it’d done right and done well (pg. 30).
For those unfamiliar with the research behind meaningful work, this book can serve has a nice introduction. You can see Schwartz’s TED talk below.