The “New” Crisis of Meaning?

by cv harquail on October 4, 2011

What’s up with the word “new” in the phrase “meaning is the new motivator”?

From all corners of the interwebz conversation about ‘business’, I see mention of this idea that meaning at work is something new, something that we have just begun to desire.


Seriously. It seems to come as a surprise, or as a new development, that maximizing shareholder value isn’t motivating to most employees. Wow. Where have these people been since, oh, the dawn of the industrial revolution?

Folks have been talking about meaning at work, and looking for meaning at work, long before this recent ‘crisis of meaning’.  

True, we’ve used different terms over time.

  • We’ve talked about alienation and estrangement to describe being cut off from meaningful work.
  • We’ve talked about commitment and engagement, as attitudes towards organizations that ought to have meaning but usually don’t.
  • We’ve talked about “leadership” as the process of creating meaning, even if only through charisma, from the top of the organization’s food chain.
  • And, we’ve talked about vision and mission, knowing that meaning was in there, somewhere, among all the BHAGs.

There is nothing ‘new’ about the desire for meaning at work.

Just yesterday, Luis Suarez wrote a great post about meaning, in which he shared a vlog from Roger Martin, Dean at Rotman School, about “The Crisis of Meaning in the Millennial Workforce“.

Luis unpacks why any of us, knowledge workers especially, might feel a lack of meaning. He clarifies that meaning is an issue for every generation of workers, and that each of us needs to do something about refocusing business so that it meets human, social needs. (Read his whole post, it’s great.)

So my question is not whether we need meaning. The question is:

Why is our desire for meaning positioned this way?

Why do so many (like Dan Pink) position “meaning” as something “new”?

  • Are we trying to avoid recognizing that meaning is something we’ve always wanted, but perhaps never felt permitted to ask for in polite business company?

Why do so many (like Roger Martin) position “meaning” as something others desire, but not us? Or that we desire for others, but not for ourselves?

  • Are we talking about “Millenials” and “their” needs for meaning so that we can take care of ‘them’ while avoiding taking responsibility for ourselves?
  • Are we trying to look ‘objective’ so that we don’t look demanding, or ungrateful? Do we have to make meaning a ‘business problem’ so that we can take meaning seriously?

I recognize that for many, it’s become a “crisis of meaning” because there is so little left to promise workers, in terms of job security, career development, gain-sharing, and ownership rights.

Maybe after all these other kinds of ‘motivations’ have been eroded by the twin beasts of corporate profit-taking and work intensification, there is nothing left that we can truly count on to take our minds of the paycheck, and so we turn to meaning.

In good times and bad times, people have always wanted meaningful work. People have always wanted – and still want–to work in organizations that serve a larger purpose, where individual and collective efforts create meaningful products, meaningful services, and meaningful experiences.

Why do we treat this as a surprising truth?



See also:
The Pursuit of (Organizational) Purpose by Deb Lavoy

Social Media for Social Change — Inside the Organization?
Is your organization flourishing or withering?
How Social Media Create Organizational Meaning


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