What is the Meaning of All This?

How Employee Meaning in and at Work Contributes to Creativity

As social creatures, people are on an ongoing quest to answer the question ‘why am I here?’ and ‘what is the meaning of all this?’ Given that most people will, on average, work more than 40 years in their lives, it stands to reason that much meaning is derived from where a person works, and the type of work that they are doing. Basically put, people hold a perception of the degree to which they feel part of, or belong to an organisation, and the degree to which they feel their work is challenging, and makes a difference. From this perception, people define themselves in terms of the organisation to which they are a member. It is this perception that helps shape meaningfulness.

Work meaningfulness is a two-pronged psychological construct. On the one hand, we have meaningfulness at work, and on the other, meaningfulness in working.

Let’s start with meaningfulness at work. This occurs when people integrate their personal identity, with their job, and their membership to a company. This is heavily influenced by the identity of the firm, shaped by top managers, and the externally created perception of company prestige. In effect, meaningfulness at work helps people answer the question of, where do I belong? On the other hand, meaningfulness in working speaks more to the actual job a person is doing, and how significant that task is for them. Important here is the degree to which a person feels challenged in their role, and has the autonomy to get things done.

But what does this have to do with creativity? Well, at the core of meaningfulness in and at work, is the fact that meaningfulness leads to organisational identification, which is when people start to hone their own self-concept through identifying with the values and norms that the organisation stands for. People who identify with their organisations, typically experience more positive psychological states, which, in turn, are linked to enhanced levels of creativity.

The question then is, how does one create the conditions people need to find meaningfulness at work, and in working, whilst also developing their identification with the company?

1. Show Real Support

Firstly, research shows us that when employees receive and internalise positive social messages from significant others (read leaders, respected persons, team members), and when these significant others show belief in that person’s worthiness, significance and competency, the employee internalises these beliefs, and starts to act on them. Essentially then, when people feel valued in a company, they feel competent, when they feel competent, they engage more readily in creative behaviours, and creative problem solving. 

2. Give People More Autonomy

Empowered employees create more innovative ideas. Period. When people feel they have the capacity to act freely, they generally become more motivated, and will put more effort into their work, have more positive work experiences, feel more responsible for their work and engage in greater creativity. The take home here? Stop micro-managing, and trust people to get the job done (for more information here, see my article Autonomy or Automatons in the Leadership Insights section).

3. Talk to Your People

Another key variable in job roles that is important to realising workplace creativity is job challenge. When paired with autonomy noted above, you create a fantastic recipe for creative success in your people. At its core, job challenge speaks to the degree to which your people feel their job stretches their abilities, and harnesses their skills. Sometimes this involves talking with your people to find out what makes them tick, and what opportunities they would like to actualise at work. You will not know until you ask. But what about people in more menial type jobs, what challenge could they find? Good question. Martin Seligman (founder of positive psychology) was challenged in this same manner with a Waitress who was finding her job boring, the trays to heavy, and people too demanding. By taking the time to speak with the Waitress, hear what made her tick, and identify her psychological strengths, she realised that her strength was for social intelligence, and that each customer interaction represented an opportunity to exercise her psychological strength. The result? The trays became lighter, interactions more meaningful, and the tips larger.

4. Start with your People

Research also indicates that meaningfulness in working has a more powerful motivational (and by implication, creative) effect on employees than meaningfulness at work. Remember that meaningfulness at work speaks to the care people have for how people view their company and evaluate it. Such evaluations are often a product of management practices, exampleand corporate values. What this means is that people find more meaning in their job, and the impact it has than they do on how others look at the company. Typically, when trying to revitalise their image, and re-energise employees, companies will turn to revising their corporate values, as a symbolic gesture of how things will start to be. In principle, there is nothing wrong with this, however, what this typically leads to is a hollow expression of intent, with no real change, a large budget expenditure, and the loss of employee buy-in, and organisational identification (the very thing that was targeted for improvement). 

To ensure more meaningful bang-for-buck, start off by talking with your people, hearing what gives them meaning at work (and what does not) and provide them with challenge and autonomy. Then take all this information, and rebuild your corporate values with your employees (if this is part of the overall exercise).

If you are looking for a tailor-made system focused on laying the foundations for employees to find meaningfulness in and at work, contact psyQ Consulting for your first, free 1 hour consultation, and needs analysis.

References & Further Reading

Cohen-Meitar, R., Carmeli, A., & Waldman, D.A. (2009). Linking meaningfulness in the workplace to employee creativity: The intervening role of organisational identification and positive psychological experiences. Creativity Research Journal, 21(4), pp. 361-375