Working out the Meaning of Work

Speaker’s Corner From The Practice July/August 2021
A meaningful conversation with Katie Bailey

David B. Wilkins, faculty director of the Harvard Law School Center on the Legal Profession, recently sat down with Katie Bailey, professor of work and employment at King’s College London, for a discussion on finding meaning in work.

David Wilkins: Professor Bailey, you have been doing some really fascinating work on the relationship between meaning and work, including at the research center that you run at King’s College. It has become a very important and interesting topic everywhere, but in our world, for lawyers in particular. It might be helpful to start if you could say a few words about how you think about meaning as it relates to work.

Katie Bailey: Meaningful work has been defined in many different ways, and in fact, I did a paper about that with some colleagues a couple of years ago. There’s very little consensus. Putting it simply, meaningful work is the sense that your work adds value in some way. It’s significant, it’s worthwhile, and it’s subjectively meaningful to you as an individual. There are some more objective definitions as well, but the subjective one is often the most useful and practical way of looking at it.

Wilkins: And you’ve been trying to measure this? You and your colleagues did a terrific study of individuals from all kinds of different organizations and asked: “What’s the point of doing your job?” I wonder if you could share with us a little bit about what you found in that study?

Meaningfulness is not necessarily a purely positive experience. If we’re finding meaning in our work, we’re not necessarily feeling happy or cheerful. It can be quite poignant. It can be challenging.

Katie Bailey

Bailey: In that study, we looked at how people find meaning in their work—as well as what makes work meaningless because it’s important to understand how the two interact with one another. In terms of meaningfulness, we found that it had five properties:

The first is that meaningfulness is self-transcendent. It’s a sense that your work matters to other people, that your work makes a difference, and that somebody’s day is better because you’ve done your job well. The lawyers that we spoke to, for example, talked about the impact that it would have on individuals winning an employment law tribunal or winning damages for a client. There was meaning in the acknowledgement that they got flowers or a note or thanks from clients. We talked to cathedral stonemasons—people who were repairing ancient cathedrals—they had a very tangible way of seeing the difference that their work makes, quite literally, because the cathedral is repaired. It’s restored to its former beauty and hopefully lasts for another 800 years. That’s another way in which you can see that the world is better.

Second, the thing to note about meaningfulness is that it’s not necessarily a purely positive experience. So if we’re finding meaning in our work, we’re not necessarily feeling happy or cheerful. It can be quite poignant. It can be challenging. We sometimes find meaning in things that really push us out of our comfort zone. For instance, nurses that we spoke to talked about giving care to people at the end of their life. That’s obviously a very challenging thing to do, but people found it very rewarding and meaningful to them because of the difference that they could make. Similarly, lawyers often deal with people in difficult situations, and that has an interpersonal dimension to it that can be challenging but nevertheless can be a source of real meaning.

The most interesting thing about meaningful work is that it’s very, very personal.

The third thing about meaningfulness that arose from our study is that it’s not a constant. You don’t go into work at 8:00 or 9:00 in the morning and leave at 5:00 in the evening and come home and say, “Gosh, do you know, my work was really meaningful all day today.” It doesn’t really work like that. People find meaning in episodes. It’s episodic. Something happens and you have a peak experience of some kind and that registers with you. But these things are often infrequent. They can be surprising. You might by chance meet somebody that you hadn’t expected to meet. We talked to artists and singers and actors as part of our study. One of the singers that we spoke to was doing a gig in a pretty crummy location—a little bit of a dive. He went outside in the break and was smoking a cigarette and was feeling a bit down because it wasn’t really going as he wanted. Then, by chance, there was an audience member who was also smoking a cigarette and they got talking. And the audience member said how much he was really enjoying the music. And it’s just by chance that that conversation that he had with the audience member made him realize, “Well, actually there is a meaning and a point to doing this.”

The fourth point is that meaning is often reflective. In other words, we don’t necessarily realize at that time that something is very meaningful. We’re busy. We’re going about our day. We’re getting on with things. We don’t necessarily stop and reflect. So, sometimes we need to pause and think back about what we’ve been doing and what the key moments are when we really realize that actually this has meaning for us. So we need these pauses where we can stop and really take stock of what we’re doing.

And the final one, which for me is, in many ways, the most interesting thing about meaningful work, is that it’s very, very personal. I’ve talked to people about their work experiences for many years. I’ve talked to thousands of people. I’ve talked about employee engagement. I’ve talked about what they feel about their line manager and what they think about their HR department. In none of those conversations do people ever talk about their family, their home, their childhood, or their friends. But as soon as you start to talk to people about what makes your work meaningful, they start talking about exactly those things. They make connections between the work that they’re doing and their family.

For example, one entrepreneur we talked to had set up a bakery and said, “My grandfather was a baker and he was a really inspiring man, and I wanted him to be proud of me. And that’s why I set up my bakery. And that’s why I find it so meaningful—because of that connection with him.” One of the lawyers that we spoke to said that he’d spent his early years growing up in a very deprived area of the country. He was in a community where there was a lot of unemployment. He’d been inspired to return to university, studied law, and went on to become a practicing lawyer. But the experiences he’d had in his early life inspired him to focus on an area of law that helped him to fight battles for other people and to represent people who might perhaps otherwise not have that legal representation. That was where he found the meaning in his work because of that link back with his childhood. So when we find meaning in our work, it’s often a personal thing. It’s not necessarily something we get from our employer. It’s something we find within ourselves in the context that we work in.

Wilkins: Are there things that organizations do that really hinder finding meaningful work?

Bailey: Yes. The flip side for that is that we found that there were seven things—which we’ve called the seven deadly sins—which are the things that really sap that sense of meaning away from our work. When it comes to the seven deadly sins, these are things that organizations and managers do to people:

The first one is disconnecting people from their values. People have a strong sense of what matters to them as individuals, which they take with them into all the environments that they work and that they spend their lives. And if people feel they work somewhere where they can’t enact their values through their daily work, they’re going to feel little sense of meaning.

People find meaning in episodes. It’s episodic. Something happens and you have a peak experience of some kind and that registers with you. But these things are often infrequent.

The second one is when people are taken for granted and not acknowledged. And this is something that lawyers did actually talk quite a bit about—a sense of, “Well, I left my last law practice because I really didn’t feel appreciated. The manager would come in in the morning and he or she wouldn’t even say good morning to people. There was no acknowledgement.”

The third sin that really gets to people is they’re being given pointless work to do. The lawyers talked about sitting in long meetings, which really they didn’t perhaps need to be in or instances where a decision could have been made by one person and didn’t really need to have six people in a room talking about it.

Fourth, treating people unfairly is also bad for a sense of meaning.

Fifth, not listening to people, so where people don’t feel they have a voice, that also harms their sense of meaningfulness.

The final two—six and seven—are really disconnecting people from supportive relationships at work. If people feel that they’re not in a strong team, if they don’t feel connected to the people around them, or if they can’t see how their work impacts other people. And, of course, if people feel that they’re put at risk of physical or psychological harm, that will also undermine people’s sense of meaning.

These are all things that organizations can do something about that drive down meaning. It’s both creating an environment that promotes meaning as well as avoiding those things that destroy meaning.

Wilkins: It sounds like the points you just made help explain an asymmetry where the factors that give rise to a sense of job satisfaction are not the same things that lead to feelings of dissatisfaction.

Bailey: Yes, absolutely. We were expecting a neat relationship: these are the things that make work meaningful, and when you haven’t got those, then it’s meaningless. But actually, there seem to be some quite different processes and experiences at play there.

Wilkins: The kind of centerpiece of this issue of The Practice is a very interesting study on lawyers done by Mitt Regan and Lisa Rohrer at Georgetown about the relationship between meaning and money. I wonder what your research has revealed about this interplay. Is money corrosive to meaning? They are typically juxtaposed in studies of lawyers between this kind of trope of law as a business and law as a profession, and I wonder how you’ve seen that in what you’ve been researching.

Bailey: There isn’t an easy answer. At the end of the day, we go to work for money. We are all motivated to some degree by money; otherwise we wouldn’t be doing our jobs. We have bills to pay, families to support, etc. The lawyers that we spoke to talked specifically about the importance of being paid fairly and being rewarded financially for high levels of performance. All of those things mattered to them, and the absence of those were taken as a sign that their employer didn’t value them.

We talked to lawyers. We talked to priests. We talked to actors. None of them said, ‘Being paid a lot of money or being given a bonus makes my work meaningful.’

But where it becomes complicated is it’s not just personal rewards per se. It is also about the way the organization implements its reward system. That’s where things often fall apart. You may have a nice incentive pay scheme in place, but if it doesn’t work properly, if people don’t think it’s fair, or if the outcomes aren’t justified in relation to the performance, then actually it can act in a more corrosive way and be less motivating.

While it matters a great deal, pay in and of itself isn’t going to make your work more or less meaningful. There was an interesting piece of data I saw recently from the U.S. General Social Survey which showed that between 1973 and 2014 work significance was the most important characteristic of a job. It was ahead of income, advancement, shorter working hours, and even job security. That’s for a general population, but I don’t really think lawyers would necessarily be any different. So it’s a complex relationship, but I think if you’re looking for meaning, you’re not necessarily going to find it in the amount of money that you’re paid.

Again, it’s the human side of work—the very personal aspect of work—that we connect with that has nothing to do with pay. Just as an example, we talked to people who were street sweepers. We talked to people who work in shops. We talked to lawyers. We talked to priests. We talked to actors. None of them said, “Being paid a lot of money or being given a bonus makes my work meaningful.” None of them. They did say, “If I wasn’t being rewarded the same as other people or if I felt I wasn’t being compensated fairly, that would erode my sense of meaningfulness.”

Wilkins: Was there any sentiment of the opposite—that being paid for something corroded diminished the meaning of it?

Bailey: No, that didn’t come up in the research that we’ve done. And I haven’t seen any evidence about that.

Wilkins: I ask because lawyers are often taught to think that the significance of their work transcends money and that too much focus on money can be demeaning of that significance. But it’s interesting that in your interviews, that kind of sentiment didn’t come up.

Bailey: No, it really didn’t. It may be to do with the type of lawyers that we spoke to. They certainly weren’t a representative group of lawyers, so they may not share the full range of views people hold across the legal profession.

Wilkins: Let me ask about a different angle on people finding meaning in their work. We hear, particularly in a lot of conversations these days about millennials—and now Gen Z—that sometimes it’s said, “Oh, they’re much more focused on meaning and purpose in their work than others.” I wonder if you’ve seen any generational differences in your research?

It’s in the institutions and the organizations that we work for that we find—or don’t find—our sense of meaning.

Bailey: From the research that I’m aware of, interestingly, there aren’t any strong generational differences. In fact, there’s this piece of data I often quote from Harvard Business Review that almost half of workers would take a 15 percent pay cut to work for an organization with an inspiring purpose. That’s very closely related to meaningfulness, and that applies across generations. And, in fact, all of the generations in the study that I’m referring to said that the things that really motivated them were making a difference to society and making a difference to their organization.

Now, having said that, I was talking to the chief executive of an energy company this morning for another research project, and he was talking about the fact that the young people who are coming into his firm are very focused on meaning, purpose, and work-life balance. They want to have a life outside work. They don’t want to work such long hours. They want to know what the organization is doing in terms of the environment, ESG, CSR. All those areas are very important for them in terms of making a decision about where to work and the type of work that they do. I wouldn’t be surprised if we start seeing some findings coming through that show that for young people now, these things are becoming more important. Whether they’re able to find work that enables them to realize that purpose, of course, is another matter.

I’m doing an interesting study at the moment with a colleague about people who experience their work as a calling. In this study, we’re talking to people who pursued a whole variety of different careers, but they felt called to be musicians early in their life. They were going to be musicians, they wanted to be musicians, but it didn’t quite work out. They went and did other things. In fact, one was a very senior lawyer at a big law firm. A lot of them were able to accumulate the resources that they needed through their life in terms of health and wealth and so on to retire early and go back to music. As a young person setting out in life, obviously needing to earn a living, pursue a career, these choices are often not available in quite the same way as they are for older people.

Wilkins: Do you find that people’s sense of meaning or wanting to find meaning in their work changed over time?

Bailey: There is a certain amount of evidence that came through from the interviews that we were doing that people may have different priorities at different times in their life. Because of personal situations, certain people will be more likely to be attentive to different cues in their environment. So if you’ve got a young family, for example, you may well be more attuned to cues for helping and supporting that environment. As we mature and go through life, the kinds of things that we might want to do in terms of realizing a sense of meaningfulness may well change.

There was a study done in the States of people who had retired and were doing a mixture of different things in retirement, and a lot of them found that very meaningful because they were able to exercise a lot of choice over what they did.

It is often that freedom and autonomy—being able to make those decisions and being freed from the sort of corporate straitjacket—that enables us to invest ourselves in things we find to be of more meaning.

Wilkins: What about the relationship between the “institutional” and the “individual” when it comes to meaning? We are seeing two things in the world of law. One is that law firms are trying to think about what their institutional policies are with respect to money and meaning. But then there’s also a growing interest in teaching individuals things like mindfulness to empower themselves to find meaning. I wonder, as you do in your research, how do you think about the relationship between the institutional and the individual? 

If you try to tell people, ‘Well, this aspect of your work should be incredibly meaningful,’ people will close down and present a false front because they’ll think, ‘Well, actually they’re telling me to find this meaningful, but really I don’t.’

Bailey: That’s really important because it’s in the institutions and the organizations that we work for that we find—or don’t find—our sense of meaning. What we found in our study was that some organizations are able to create a kind of an ecosystem where people can find a sense of meaning through four interconnected processes. The first is interactions with other people. We call this interactional meaningfulness. For instance, do you connect with colleagues or with beneficiaries of your work that enable you to see the difference that you’re making? Do you work for an organization that has an aspirational purpose that inspires you and enables you to see how your contribution to the organization then has a wider contribution to society more generally?

The next element is job meaningfulness: Does your particular job have a purpose that makes you think, “When I go in and I do my job, things change, and things improve as a result?” Or are you not really able to see that?

Finally, there is task meaningfulness. What do we actually do every day? For lawyers, like many other people, you’re doing a range of different tasks through the day and sometimes it’s the less meaningful tasks.

One of the lawyers we spoke to liked to go into work early. She used to start work at 5:00 AM. She told us she’d be walking into work and she’d think, “Well, I’m going in to work hard, but is anything going to change as a result of me being here? Is anything going to be any better? What’s going to happen as a result of the work that I’m putting in?” The organization creates a setting where we can find meaningfulness, but we can’t dictate meaningfulness. If you try to tell people, “Well, this aspect of your work should be incredibly meaningful,” people will kind of close down and present a bit of a false front because they’ll think, “Well, actually they’re telling me to find this meaningful, but really I don’t.” It’s personal to you. Organizations can create an environment supportive of meaningfulness, but meaningfulness is ultimately personal.

Wilkins: In today’s organizations, all of these things are increasingly being mediated through technology. And after the pandemic, people know that we’re going to be using technology much more and in a much more hybrid way. You just did a webinar on some of these issues, and I wonder how you think about the relationship between everything you’ve now been talking about and this use of technology. 

Bailey: That is such an important point in today’s working world. The way I see it is that technology in and of itself can’t create or destroy our sense of meaningfulness. It’s the way we use it and what we use it for that creates context. I’m finding our conversation very meaningful because we’re talking about meaningful work, which is something I’m really interested in. Later this afternoon, I’m going to go to a meeting that I’m not going to find anywhere near as meaningful, but I’ll be using the same technology. It’s about how we use it. So it has the potential to create opportunities for us. I mean, I’ve seen and I’m sure you have as well, examples where colleagues have been able to get together and develop new ideas and interesting projects together that wouldn’t have been possible before the pandemic because the logistics of getting people together were just too difficult.

But I’ve also seen it make things much more complicated. Those water cooler chats that we all like—that’s what we’re all missing, isn’t it? I think we have to work much harder in this virtual environment to create something like an informal culture. And I think going back to your point earlier about millennials, I think this is where it becomes really challenging as they enter the workforce. If they’re having to work more and more remotely as they first start, where do they pick up these interpersonal skills, tacit knowledge of the organizational culture, understanding of how things work and get those employability skills working purely through technology? And I don’t think anybody really has the answer to that.

Wilkins: Separate from technology, how do you think having gone through this experience is going to change, if at all, the way in which people think about meaning and seeking meaning in their work?

Bailey: I think it’s causing people to really pause and think about what their work means. I came across a statistic the other day which said that 41 percent of people are thinking about quitting their jobs to find more meaningful work after the pandemic. It’s given a lot of people a chance to stop and think. A lot of other people, of course, have not had a chance to stop and think and have been working flat out and they’re under a lot of pressure. Other people have lost their jobs. But for a lot of people, it’s been a chance to think, “Do I really want to do this?”

When you pare away everything—the work relationships and the colleagues—and it’s all down to technology, that strips away a lot of the things about work that perhaps we appreciated before. We start to see the raw work; what’s left when all the other bits have gone. This makes you think, “Is this really what I want to do for the rest of my life? Perhaps I’ll go and do something else.”

Wilkins: Katie, you and I are lucky in that we have jobs that allow us to try to understand meaning. And you, of course, are directly focused on this and running this fantastic research center on meaning and purpose at King’s College. I wonder if you might close by just saying a little bit about what you are planning on studying in the next few months and years as we hopefully come out of this pandemic. What should we be paying attention to in this space?

Technology in and of itself can’t create or destroy our sense of meaningfulness. It’s the way we use it and what we use it for that creates context.

Bailey: We have MaPNet, which is the Meaning and Purpose Network, a group of organizations from a whole variety of sectors. We were slightly derailed by the pandemic because we just started in January 2020. One of the things we are focusing on is tracking how meaning and purpose are developing and changing over time as we come out of the pandemic.

We are also looking at meaningful work for individuals and for organizational purpose in the context of the climate change crisis. What is a good purpose? How do you develop it? How do you implement it? So if you’re a green organization and you’ve got a clear set of environmental initiatives that drive you, that’s one thing. But if you’re an ordinary organization, you think, “Well, actually, we need to change. We need to be more environmental.” What specifically do you need to do? How do you do it? How do you shift your business model to become more environmentally aware? How do you take your people with you? So that’s one set of questions that we’re looking at.

We’re also looking in more depth at this link between organizational purpose and meaningful work. One of my doctoral students has got a great study tracking the implementation of purpose in a large engineering firm to see how that links with people’s sense of meaningfulness over time. In another project, I’m looking at a conglomerate that’s developed a purpose in the energy sector, particularly in the context of green energy.

There are so many questions to look at around this. I’m really excited actually to get back into the office in the autumn and start seeing people, visiting organizations face-to-face again, and begin looking at some of these questions.

Katie Bailey is a professor of work and employment at King’s College London and Head of the HRM and Employment Relations Group at King’s Business School.

David B. Wilkins is the Lester Kissel Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, vice dean for Global Initiatives on the Legal Profession, and faculty director of the Center on the Legal Profession.