The Brain-Changing Magic of Meaningful Work

What if you could change the way you experience your work by simply shifting your lens? What if someone else’s perspective on your work could bring you more happiness and energy even when circumstances seem to be working against you?

Years ago, when I was a corporate trainer, I was on the road most weeks. One night, after a delayed flight to Dallas, I arrived at my hotel at 1AM. The desk clerk couldn’t find the training manuals I’d shipped ahead. I knew they were there; I’d already checked for proof of delivery. I needed them by 7 AM. So with the desk clerk unable to help me and the rest of the staff nowhere to be found, I asked to go down to the shipping area. After digging through the shipping receivables and eventually finding my materials, I lugged them up to the ballroom. By now it was after 2 AM. My session was set to begin in 5 hours.

The next morning, I was exhausted. I knew I was supposed to be motivational; the truth was, I felt anything but.  I found myself thinking, “Just do the basics. All you need to do is make it through the next two days.” So with 15 minutes left before I had to face a room full of people, I did what many professional women do, but very few admit to. I headed for the Ladies Room, locked myself in the stall and began to cry.

As I sat there, silently weeping and feeling sorry for myself, two of the attendees came out of stalls and began talking to each other. The first one said, “I’m so excited, I’ve been wanting to do this program for a year.” The second one said, “I know, I heard it’s great. It’s the first thing my new boss wanted me to do when I got promoted.”

Listening to them so excited about the program (that I was dreading) was a wakeup call. It was clear. I had been given the chance to touch lives and I was blowing it.

In that minute, I finally got it: My work mattered. It mattered to real people and would send ripples through the universe. I was still tired, but that moment fueled me.

I’m not alone, that personal experience is similar to what many people have discovered about their work.

When we know our work matters, we not only do a better job, we experience more fulfillment doing it.  The science of meaningful work has been well documented in recent years.

Organizational Psychologist Adam Grant studied the impact of meaningful work in a university call center. Calling for donations is tough; there’s lot of rejection and pay is low.

Grant found that employees who got to talk to a scholarship student, a student who was able to attend the university thanks to donations solicited from the call center, had a very different experience. When employees saw significance in their work, they spent more than twice the amount of time on the phone speaking with alumni and they also reported feeling more motivated. This same study was replicated with life guards, hospital janitorial teams, and more.

In all of these groups, Grant concluded that “task significance” is a key driver in both performance and fulfillment.

Whether you have formal authority or not, you have the power to show people that their work matters (Even over Zoom). And you have the power to create a meaningful work experience for yourself.

Here are some tips to help:

  • Identify who the work impacts. Not a department name, not a company name, who are the real people that are better off as a result of your work? Thinking and talking about these people can make seemingly mundane tasks more meaningful.
  • Get clear on the consequences of not doing it (or doing it badly). Who suffers if you don’t do your job? What is left undone? And then what happens? Humans have natural instincts to help each other (contrary to what’s going on in Washington). Viewing your work in the context of helping someone else avoid delays, capture opportunities, or make sure things are done correctly adds on layers of significance.
  • Know your strengths. Are you detail-oriented? Creative? Great at inspiring others? Being aware of where you add the most value can help you identify high-impact opportunities to help quickly.

As we continue our journey in 2021, many of us are hoping to a more fulfilling year, or at least a more predictable one. If there’s one thing the last year has taught us, the only thing we can control is our own behavior.

Finding meaning in your work is a choice. If you’ve been a long-time follower of this newsletter, you’ll know I firmly believe ‘purpose’ is not a corporate slogan or recruiting tactic. Purpose at work is choosing to wake up each day and believe it matters.