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


virginia Yonkers October 5, 2011 at 11:53 am

Perhaps it is not the focus on “meaning” but rather the focus on “motivator” that “they” are referring to. If you made a widget in the past, it didn’t matter if there was meaning in the work. Motivation was based on whether you met your quota or not. With knowledge work, however, the knowledge that workers have can be withheld from the organization (thus minimizing the amount of product that can be sold) unless a worker is motivated to share for the “good” of the organization.

It seems to me that finding meaning in the sharing of information for something other than profit means the organization can unlock the knowledge a worker may hold back in a knowledge organization. As corporations are perceived as using knowledge for their own gain (the disembodied, non-human “corporation”), unethical means, and/or only for a small minority, less and less workers are willing to share their knowledge.

cv harquail October 5, 2011 at 4:47 pm

Hi Virginia-

Thanks so much for your comment– there *is* a qualitative difference between being motivated by money and being motivated by meaning (extrinsic vs intrinsic, to begin with). I think you hit it on the nose that ‘meaning’ is all about eliciting the ‘extra’ from the employee/member, making the difference between doing something, and doing it well. Knowledge workers still contribute without a sense of meaning, but it’s the meaning that usually gets them/us to go above and beyond.

When I think on the situation of the worker and the widget, these workers still want(ed) meaning in their work. Meaning still mattered to them, but since no extra, discretionary effort was needed to get a decent widget made, managers/owners just chose to ignore this need for meaning. Workers often found meaning elsewhere, but felt estranged from their widget work.

That said, workers who could find meaning in their widget work gave extra effort at work, in the form of extra attention to detail, helpfulness with coworkers, loyalty, etc. This all was ‘work’, and work that went unpaid, since the only work that counted was # of widgets.

What I also find interesting is what people use to motivate themselves, when collective meaning is not available… they use professional standards, self-expression, pride, and more self-based motivations… which do a lot to get extra quality in their work but don’t, as you point out, necessarily get contributions to the whole. That requires a motivation above & beyond oneself.


Derek Irvine, Globoforce October 7, 2011 at 3:01 pm

Brilliant post, CV. All the coverage of “meaningful work” lately has rubbed me a bit wrong, too, lately, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on why. You’ve summarised my feelings quite nicely.

I tend to write on the importance of meaningful work quite often. In one of my favorite posts on the topic, I said: All work is meaningful and valuable (otherwise, why would you be paying people to do it). The trick is for management to help employees see that meaningfulness and personal value, especially during this tough economy and often stressful workplace environment.

This reminds me of the time I visited an aged relative in hospital. My cousin questioned why I thanked the janitor as deeply as I did the doctor. In my eyes, the janitor keeps my relative’s hospital room as clean and germ free as possible, which is critical to her speedy recovery. How is that any less meaningful or worthy of appreciation than the efforts of the doctor? Any heroic efforts by the doctor to save my relative’s life would be wasted if she had caught an infection in a dirty recovery room.

The rest of the post is available here (including links to Teresa Amabile’s research that seems to have sparked this latest rise the topic of meaningful work):

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