What Does It Mean to Have a Meaningful Job?

Job fulfillment is often dependent on factors that go beyond a paycheck.

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Based on research by Lea Cassar and Stephan Meier

For many workers, job satisfaction is often attributed to a source of meaning that goes beyond punching a clock and cashing a paycheck. It’s what researchers call “nonmonetary incentives.”

It is possible that a workplace is associated with a public good, or mission, such as education or medicine and that provides employees with a sense of meaning.

Recent scholarship from Stephan Meier, the James P. Gorman Professor of Business Strategy, suggests that it’s not just the mission of workplace that matters, but factors such as autonomy, competence and “relatedness,” or feeling connected to an organization that defines a meaningful job.

In a 2018 paper in Journal of Economic Perspectives co-authored with Lea Cassar of the University of Cologne in Germany titled “Nonmonetary Incentives and the Implications of Work as a Source of Meaning,” Meier writes that their findings “point to evidence that not everyone cares about having a meaningful job.”

“There is evidence in economics that those nonmonetary aspects of the job are important and then we link it to those psychological factors,” says Meier.

In the paper, Meier characterizes a worker’s relationship to the mission of an organization as something that would be a source of fulfillment and give their jobs a larger social context which forges connections in the world.

“Think about being a teacher,” Meier says. “There’s no more important job than being a teacher in terms of mission. You are actually shaping the minds of young people.”

Though, as Meier notes in the paper, commercial enterprises such as SAB Miller, one of the largest breweries in the world, also incorporate a sense of mission to their identities to increase their profile as socially responsible companies.

But as Meier points out in the study, this strategy can backfire, such as when firms “greenwash,” or pretend to be more environmentally conscious than they are. “Often social responsibility is also insurance, so if something goes bad they will still have goodwill.” Meier says.

Still, to an individual employee, the overarching mission of an organization might not contribute to the overall meaning of one’s job.

“Working for a children’s hospital is [in terms of mission] better than working for a gun manufacturer,” Meier says. “But it could be that the work at the children’s hospital is terrible because it is dysfunctional and the job at the gun manufacturer is amazing because the culture is great and when you do something it gets done and you have a lot of autonomy.” Meier says that when considering a definition of meaningful work, it is important to consider economic factors such unemployment.

“We’re in a period now when the unemployment rate is relatively low,” Meier says. “If I ask you what is important in a job, that changes when the unemployment rate is 8 percent and suddenly income becomes more important and other aspects become less important.”

In addition to the economy, the age of a worker is also an element in the definition of a meaningful job. Meier writes that younger individuals tend to care more about finding meaning in their work, but that feeling may diminish as they get older and begin to look elsewhere for meaning, such as in social relationships.

Meier notes that the heterogeneity in what constitutes “meaningful work” will continue to be a challenge for firms and organizations when they screen employees and design incentives.

“If people just care about income, even HR is going to be relatively trivial,” Meier says. “I figure out the good incentive contract and I’m done. But if people are interested in different aspects of work, then that changes quite dramatically how we think about incentives and motivating people.”

Even if working a high-earning job doesn’t project an image of social responsibility, it might prove to be meaningful to an individual and Meier urges his students to maintain a perspective on the worth of various professions.

About the researcher

Stephan Meier

Stephan Meier is currently the chair of the Management Division and the James P. Gorman Professor of Business at Columbia Business School. He...

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