Meaningful work?

Not a day goes by with a newspaper article or a conversation in the HR department of an organisation without hearing about “the purpose driven organisation” and how employees demand meaningful work.

As is always the case, these new concepts cover old self-evident facts wrapped in management jargon in powerpoint presentations delivered by external consultants.

As this article in the Economist aptly describes, most empirical studies show that all employees seek some form of meaning at work, as well as in their lives more generally. Surely, there is nothing new in that. What is new here is that consultants have caught the wind of the zeitgeist and now believe that meaning equals “making a difference” or “changing the world for the better”.

However, neither the world nor the people who work in it are that simple. As the Economist states:

The very idea of a purposeful employee conjures up a specific type of person. They crave a meaningful job that changes society for the better. When asked about their personal passion projects, they don’t say “huh?” or “playing Wordle”. They are concerned about their legacy and almost certainly have a weird diet.

Yet this is not the only way to think about purpose-driven employees. New research from Bain, a consultancy, into the attitudes of 20,000 workers across ten countries confirms that people are motivated by different things.

Bain identifies six different archetypes, far too few to reflect the complexity of individuals but a lot better than a single lump of employees. “Pioneers” are the people on a mission to change the world; “artisans” are interested in mastering a specific skill; “operators” derive a sense of meaning from life outside work; “strivers” are more focused on pay and status; “givers” want to do work that directly improves the lives of others; and “explorers” seek out new experiences.

Here, human complexity is even broken down into just six archetypes. After all, there are probably as many types as there are people, and their preferences change over time. Defining a purpose shared by all or even most is as futile as trying to divide people into identities. People are the same only by virtue of the fact that we are all human.

If you want to operate a purpose-driven business, you should go back to good old Milton Friedman, who said that the purpose of a business is to increase profits for its owners (“The Social Responsibility of Business Is To Increase Its Profits“).

Today, however – as always – the reality is that you cannot run a profitable business if you do not have good and motivated employees. And you will only get that if you enable them to find meaning in their work, fulfil their ambitions and pursue their dreams.

The manager can only do this by creating a framework in the workplace for employees’ individual preferences and choices to this effect. This makes sense today, when knowledge workers in particular are in high demand, but it is not a new thing. The solution is therefore not to spend expensive consultancy fees on today’s slogans invented to meet the need to win at bullshit bingo.

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