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Human beings are meaning-making machines. We need to understand why we do things to make sense of them. If we know the “Why” we are able to do the “What” and the “How”. Often we start in the middle, with the “What” or at the other end with the “How”, but we never manage to get going because we did not make sense of the “Why”.

Work is no different! We need to understand the “Why” to find true meaning in our work. Because humans have evolved and grown over the years we have reached the point where we are searching to find meaning in our work. Quite rightfully so as we spend two thirds of our adult life and time at work.

We need to digress for a moment and clarify the difference between “meaning in work” and “meaning of work” because the words “in” and “of” change the meaning of the sentences completely. Meaning in work refers to the fact that one’s work is meaningful and has purpose and the output serves others. We perceive that our work matters, that it makes sense and that it has a purpose. Meaning of work, and for that matter life, is a philosophical question. Here we question life existence, the universe and everything to establish where we as individuals fit in this huge picture. Perhaps this is a spiritual question? We can have meaning in work without having explored answers to meaning of work/life.

To find meaning in our work we seek to understand two elements, namely:

1. Comprehension of our work experience. Here a person looks at who they are and how they relate to their work. The work-fit matters on our abilities, interests and how our needs match with those of the company. We establish if our identity matches our work-related-tasks and roles. Interestingly, we need to have a mature understanding of ourselves to establish the work-task-fit.
2. Purpose refers to our identification and intent to pursue highly valued goals. Generally, goals have a short timeframe whereas purpose has a long timeframe. Purpose unites actions over multiple periods linking together various themes. One could visualize purpose to be an overarching bridge that links where we are now to our future aspirations.
If we transpose this into the work environment we can assist employees to find meaning in their work by providing a clear understanding of their specific work role, how this links up with the company’s purpose and contributes to something much greater than themselves.

As people understand who they are as workers, what their company is about and how they uniquely fit in and how their work benefits/contributes to the company, the person develops a sense of understanding about themself. This has a direct impact on the person finding purpose in their work which in turn will drive transcendence. Maslow referred to it as self-actualisation where a feedback loop develops as self-actualisation leads to commitment which drives purpose.

My guess is that you’re confused right now!