Published February 12, 2001

Meaningful Contribution at Work: What Employees Want From a Job

More than salary, benefits, work environment or status, the ultimate determinant of whether you enjoy going to work each day is whether you believe the work you do makes some sort of meaningful contribution.

"Meaningful contribution," of course, is one of those lofty, but vague, constructions a politician might use. So here's what I mean in plain English: Do you consider the work you do important?

The truth is, few of us have jobs that are intrinsically important and universally seen as such. Jobs in this five-star category include heart surgeon, for example, and airline pilot. These are jobs where lives literally depend on the jobholder's performance. Talk about important! While people who hold such jobs may eventually choose other work - one can understand how an emergency room doctor, for example, might want a break from gunshot wounds and auto accidents - you can be certain these people love their work. (That is, assuming they are paid adequately and aren't burdened with too much administrative nonsense.)

Since not all of us can have such jobs, are we doomed to doing work that's unimportant? Of course not. In fact, whether our work is important or meaningless is a subjective judgment made by just one person: ourselves.

Consider that many people are unhappy doing jobs that most of us hold in high esteem. Countless numbers of dentists, lawyers and corporate executives, to name several "successful" professional job categories, hate what they do. Sure, they may earn lots of money and have prestige and social status, but those things don't make someone love their job over the long run.

"Aside from the money, the work I do is meaningless," a personal bankruptcy lawyer told me. "I deal with ignorant people all day long who declare bankruptcy and then go right out and start spending again because greedy credit card companies are willing to lend them money at high interest rates."

So what makes a job important? It's doing work that taps into one of our core values. These values usually are basic ethical or moral beliefs we feel strongly about and which center around making the world a better place. They often involve teaching, helping, healing, improving, understanding and organizing. How you carry out these beliefs in the real world of work needn't involve acting like a saint or living in poverty. You just need to be able to connect some aspects of your job to your core values.

For example, a clerk on the front lines in the motor vehicle department (a position many might consider purgatory), may see her work as extremely important - and satisfying - because it involves helping people with an essential dimension of their lives. Similarly, a sanitation collector may feel that his work is vital to the maintenance of public health.

To all this, a critic may reply that concocting an ethical or moral dimension to our job won't make us believe our job is important. True enough; if we concoct it, the meaning won't come. But if we sincerely feel that our job lets us satisfy our core values - or if we consciously seek a job that lets us tap those values - we will feel that what we do is important and we'll look forward to going to work each day.

(C) Copyright 2001 Evan Cooper. Syndicated by ParadigmTSA