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Don't Force It: How 'Meaningful' Work Can Turn Off Employees

Don't Force It: How 'Meaningful' Work Can Turn Off Employees
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Few things provide a greater source of motivation to employees than working in a job they find meaningful. However, employers that try to force "meaning" into their employees' work end up hurting their performance and the organization as a whole, new research finds.

The study, which was recently published in the Human Resource Management Review journal, found that strategies that are designed to manipulate how much meaning employees find in their work — such as encouraging workers to adopt organizational values and to support good causes, and linking work to a wider purpose — can end up leaving employees looking for new employers.

Catherine Bailey, the study's lead author and a professor at the University of Sussex in the United Kingdom, said that the problem stems from those times when employees find that their employer's extra encouragement to them to find meaning in their work is either self-serving, not genuine or incoherent.

She said that these types of management strategies, when not properly executed, leave workers feeling compelled to act as if they find their work meaningful, even if they do not. [See Related Story: Improve Productivity and Morale by Igniting Employee Passions]

"This may be for career advancement, the wish to feel good about oneself or the fear of negative outcomes, such as job loss, stigma or career blocking," Bailey said in a statement. "But faking it in this way, pretending that they believe things that they do not, for instance, takes a huge amount of emotional resource and can leave people exhausted, burnt out or wanting to quit."

As part of the study, the researchers discovered two forms of "acting" that employees use when employers make an effort to manage the meaningfulness of their work: surface existential acting and deep existential acting.

The study's authors said that surface existential acting is when employees act in line with expectations at work, even if their true values and beliefs are different, and deep existential acting is when workers attempt to alter their own sense of what is meaningful in order to more closely align with their employer's wishes.

An example of deep existential acting can be found in the situation of a call center worker who personally finds meaning in helping worried customers, but who is expected to handle as many calls as possible in a day. In turn, the call center worker tries to deliberately change his or her perception of the situation so that the individual instead finds meaning in helping the maximum number of people in a day, even if that means sacrificing the time that's spent on each one.

The study's authors said that, in the end, both types of "acting" can cause problems for individuals and organizations.

"HR professionals should consider the factors that are likely to give rise to forms of organizational acting, such as reward systems that emphasize 'fitting in', and structures and systems that allow little room for individual choice, voice and discretion, and explore the extent to which these are true of their organizations," Bailey said. "Ensuring that line managers are appropriately trained and developed to help employees find their work genuinely meaningful should be the corner piece of a meaningfulness management strategy."

The study was co-authored by Adrian Madden, a senior lecturer and the University of Greenwich in the United Kingdom; Kerstin Alfes, a professor at ESCP Europe in Germany; Amanda Shantz, a professor at the University of Greenwich; and Emma Soane, an assistant professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science. 

Chad Brooks

Chad Brooks is a Chicago-based writer who has nearly 15 years' experience in the media business. A graduate of Indiana University, he spent nearly a decade as a staff reporter for the Daily Herald in suburban Chicago, covering a wide array of topics including, local and state government, crime, the legal system and education. Following his years at the newspaper Chad worked in public relations, helping promote small businesses throughout the U.S. Follow him on Twitter.