Managers do nothing to foster a sense of meani..." /> Managers do nothing to foster a sense of meani..." />

Managers Can Destroy, Not Create, Sense of Meaning at Work

Three workers sitting in a meetingManagers do nothing to foster a sense of meaning at work, but their attitudes can destroy employees’ sense that their work is meaningful, according to a study published in MIT Sloan Management Review.

According to the study, research increasingly points to the importance of a sense of meaning at work. Some studies suggest meaning is more important than any other component of work, including pay or working environment. Some companies have attempted to boost morale by finding ways to create a sense of meaning, but the study undermines the notion that this is the role of management. The study’s authors predicted working conditions would be a significant factor in meaning at work, but their research suggests meaning comes from the worker, not the workplace or manager.

Sense of Meaning at Work Does Not Come from Managers

Researchers identified 135 people working in 10 different professions. They asked participants to share stories about times when work felt meaningful, as well as moments when they felt their jobs were pointless.

They found meaning at work was an intensely personal experience that related to the way the work affected workers’ self-perceptions and reflected their values. Workers often related stories about how meaningful work related to personal experiences, such as a loved one’s working history or a memory of a family member.

Although managers did not contribute to workers’ sense of meaning, they did do things that undermined a sense of meaning at work. Undermining supportive relationships, forcing people to act against their values, and overriding workers’ judgments ranked among the most common behaviors that reduced meaning at work.

What Does Meaningful Work Look Like?

Based upon the interviews, the researchers identified five traits of meaningful work:

  • Reflective: Workers see their work as meaningful not in the moment, but after reflecting upon their actions.
  • Self-transcendent: Employees see their work as more meaningful when it matters to other people.
  • Episodic: Meaning happens periodically, rather than being a constant state.
  • Poignant: People find their work meaningful even at times of mixed emotions, including negative feelings.
  • Personal: People bring their human experiences to work, and their assessment of a job’s meaning depends on personal factors such as previous experiences and cultural values.


  1. Bailey, C., & Madden, A. (2016, June 1). What makes work meaningful–or meaningless. Retrieved from
  2. Meaningful work not created, only destroyed, by bosses, study finds. (2016, June 3). Retrieved from

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  • Tracy

    June 8th, 2016 at 2:54 PM

    But if you look at the amount of work and pressure that is put on people in certain positions surely you can understand that there will be frustration at times and that they would take it out on the people under them? don’t know why this is so hard to understand. I don’t think that it is okay to verbally abuse people, but good grief, there is pressure on everyone and you know that it is just going to take one little thing before someone loses their cool. Honestly I think that it is time to give everyone a little break.

  • Jules

    June 8th, 2016 at 3:26 PM

    Last time I checked I wasn’t supposed to get my sense of self from work anyway so… who cares?

  • Teresa

    June 9th, 2016 at 3:54 PM

    Not everything is our fault. Oh sure we are supposed to be the ones to accept the blame when the team as a whole fails but why? Why should we accept something as our responsibility when you supposedly have competent adults working on a project and they fail to deliver?

  • Jackie

    June 11th, 2016 at 2:53 PM

    I agree with Teresa. The managers always get a bad rap, but do we get any praise for when things do go right?

  • Meredith

    June 13th, 2016 at 3:48 PM

    Haven’t you ever had those days where you absolutely dread going into work that day not because you hate your job but you are pretty sure that given the chance you might hurt your supervisor?
    Well I feel like that every single day. I hate the job mainly because I despise the person that I work for and as soon as I can lad something else, regardless of the pay, I am out of there.
    Truthfully those eight hours a day make me totally miserable.

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