Applied Behavior Science for Health and Happiness
Want to Feel Motivated at Work? Find the Meaning in your Job
Want to Feel Motivated at Work? Find the Meaning in your Job

Want to Feel Motivated at Work? Find the Meaning in your Job

Want to FeelMost theories of what makes work motivating include some element of meaningfulness. It’s important for people to think that what they are doing matters. This might mean that it matters because it helps other people or brings good to the world; it might simply mean it matters because it contributes to company success or the production of a product. Whatever form that meaning takes, motivating work has some.

A table tent in one of our company offices connecting employees' work to our company mission.
A table tent in one of our company offices connecting employees’ work to our company mission.

The job characteristic theory is one of the classic models of work motivation from the mid-1970s. Aside from the fact that one of its authors, Richard Hackman, taught my introduction to psychology course way back when, I’ve always liked this theory because it accounts for two different types of meaning around a job. One type is the understanding of how your tasks fit into a bigger picture; the other is more about understanding how your work helps others or affects the world. Both types of meaning matter according to job characteristic theory.

A wall poster, again connecting work to meaning.
A wall poster, again connecting work to meaning.

The job characteristic theory also says that to be motivated at work, a person has to have some kind of feedback or knowledge of their outcomes. This is consistent with the idea of competence in self-determination theory, which is supported by timely and relevant feedback. It also makes sense that without some knowledge of outcome, it would be difficult to have a sense of purpose.

While having meaning at work is important for motivation, approximately 50% of American workers in a recent survey said they lacked a sense of purpose at work. This is troubling, considering how much time we invest in our jobs and how central they are to our sense of self.

If your job lacks meaning, there are a few things you can do about it:

Try to find meaning by thinking differently about your job

A chalkboard in the office where employees can share how their work makes a difference.
A chalkboard in the office where employees can share how their work makes a difference.

If you are having trouble finding meaning at work, you may need to transform your viewpoint. One way to do this is by talking to customers, users, or others affected by the work you to to understand how they are impacted by it. Another is to take a cue from a group of janitors who rewrote the story of their work. Rather than thinking of their job in terms of mopping floors and emptying bedpans, they focused on creating a clean, safe environment that was an essential part of helping people get well. The second story led to far greater motivation at work.

Connect with others through your work

Another table tent--this time assigning meaning to the worker as well as the work.
Another table tent–this time assigning meaning to the worker as well as the work.

My research with firefighters showed that connections with coworkers drive devotion to the job, and provide an emotional resource for coping with hardship. Firefighters aren’t alone in this; for example, Gallup found that people who had a best friend at work were much more likely to be engaged and motivated. Consider also that the people who are most motivated at work tend to have had college majors that involve caring for or helping others. As the late Chris Peterson was known to say, other people matter.

Seek pockets of growth through challenging tasks

Sometimes a job just isn’t inspiring. In such cases, it still may be possible to carve out tasks or projects that help exercise skills you value or teach you new ones. Self-determination theory would predict that seeking work tasks that are difficult but achievable with work and learning would enhance satisfaction. In fact, people who are happiest are also more likely to tackle the most difficult problems. So next time you feel yourself disengaging, look for a challenge to work on.