22 March 2023

The Problem Of Meaning At Work

Can ancient wisdom and modern psycho-social approaches help us?

Probably the most meaningful poll that Gallup ever produced shows that people rate receiving a ‘good job’ rating as one of the most important things in life. Of course, there is the paycheck that often comes with a good job which is essential to get your basic needs met. But perhaps more than that, having a ‘good job’ acknowledged seems to do a lot to fulfill one of a human being’s innate needs … the need for meaning.

Modern western psychological research shows that a meaningful life arises in 3 ways:

  1. When we are connected to something bigger than us, an ideology, set of values, a movement and/or a group of likeminded people, an organisation or the universe.
  2. When we stretch ourselves beyond what we are currently capable of, when we learn new knowledge, skills, new ways of being, thinking, feeling, doing.
  3. When we are in service to others: kids, parents, customers and our boss

Good jobs make life meaningful … imagine you’re the boss and your employees are all feeling like they are part of a great important movement working for you, feeling connected and accepted. They are willing to develop the ability to move heaven and earth to do the job better than it’s ever been done before, breaking all records, and they are instilled with a strong sense of service and loyalty to the company. Imagine being that employee, working for a company that aligns with your values and facilitates the impact you want to have on the world. This creates teams with healthy human connections, recognises your talents and spends money and time to help you develop to become the best that you can be, and pays you well for your service.

So we shouldn’t be surprised by the Gallup poll, should we? Here in 2018 we have global unemployment at 32% and increasing as technology and AI marches inexorably onwards. Our biggest concern may be finding any jobs for the people of the future but that’s another article.

Meanwhile … what gets in the way of meaningfulness in our time, even when you have a job? Let’s head East …

The Sufi mystic tradition developed an incredible model of the human psyche which includes the concept of the commanding self, ‘that mixture of primitive emotionality and conditioned responses common to all of us which inhibits and distorts progress and understanding, development and learning’.  The commanding self has some similarity to the commonly used yet rarely explained term ‘the ego’, however, they are not quite the same.

The ‘commanding self’ when in action strips us of real free will (although we might feel we are expressing it). The key to understanding the commanding self is that it can never be satisfied because it has a wish for permanence and possession of ALL. However, the problem for the commanding self is death tends to take away everything demanded by the commanding self or in other words ‘a life devoted to self-interest is futile’ (We have all seen Scrooge!).

You may have noticed that some of the people complaining that life lacks meaning may be accurately describing their reality if their life has only been devoted to self-interest and obedience to the commanding self with its unachievable demands. On the other hand, Victor Frankl in his masterpiece on the nature of meaning accurately describes the reality of his life inside a concentration camp while suffering the worst that mankind is capable of. Yet he could still find a sense of meaning from the connection with the other prisoners, the acts of service that he was able to do and the ability to put his experiences into a wider context and learn from them. If you have not read his book, ‘Man’s search for meaning’, I would strongly recommend that if you are a human, read it.

Western psychologist Arthur Deikman, who studied amongst other things, the concept of the commanding self says:

There is no solution to the problem of meaning except to transcend the motivations of the commanding self. The path to this transcendence is service, which means serving the task and ultimately serving what mystics call ‘the truth’.

Okay, that sounds rather mystical I know, but bear with me as it will all make sense…

Arthur goes further to use the analogy of the human as being like a pond and the commanding self is always throwing stones into the pond, causing agitation. When the agitation from the stones subsides sufficiently the pond responds to the tiny currents that link it to the ocean. When we can reduce the demands of the commanding self we can respond to the flow. When we align ourselves to that flow we not only act to continue the current but we can experience ourselves as continuous with the ocean rather than restricted to the pond. With the experience of the larger identity, the commanding self subsides and meaning is perceived.

Are you noting the similarities in all these approaches? From social psychology to Victor Frankl to Sufi mysticism to Scrooge to organisational psychology which tells us that intrinsic motivators are the most powerful: Mastery, Autonomy, Purpose a la Dan Pink.

If you want to instill a sense of meaning in your people then connect them to the currents, align the values and purpose of your organisation to the innate need for meaning in the human being, make sure they feel connected to the ideology and the people that work there, stretch them and help them to develop their autonomy. To do so genuinely will transform organisations and the people within them. However, it requires a thorough understanding of the elements that detract or contributes to this process and it is not that simple to apply this knowledge successfully. It requires an evidence-based bio-psycho-social approach which I will introduce in part 2 ‘Can training help to create meaning or am I dreaming?’ and part 3 ‘There is no work/life balance…it’s all life’.

Written by Damian Fearns


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