Prof. Amy Wrszniewski about Meaning@Work

von Lisa Kirberg

Fewer boundaries need more meaning

Fewer boundaries need more meaning

Prof. Amy Wrszniewski is teaching Organizational Behavior at the Yale School of Management. Her research focuses on the way how people see and understand the meaning of their work and what it represents to them: a job, a career or a calling. Prof. Amy Wrszniewski began her career in research with the help of a whole period of meaningful moments. She was an undergraduate student in Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and started doing research with her professor Paul Rozin, a leading expert on the determinants of human food choice. Three years long she learned about doing studies, writing papers and about believing in the curiosity for a topic. At that time no one was interested in the research topic of a meaningful work. Her professor gave her the self-confidence and the support – advisory and financially – to follow this path. He believed in her, in the meaning of what she did and convinced her to push into this – what turned out to be an extraordinary important field of research today.

Prof. Wrszniewski, what created the meaning at the beginning of your research career? The new exceptional research topic or the strong believe that your professor had in you and your topic?

That is a great question - and it’s hard to say. You know if you imagine a map that you’re unfolding and you think you have the whole map and then someone comes and says, shake this part out. And then a whole set of new dimensions comes out of the map, which you’ll never knew. That someone shows you a new terrain and is in a position to tell you that you could hike this terrain. You know I was a first generation college student, so for me going to college was like going to Mars, going to get the PhD was like leaving the galaxy. But Paul Rozin made it believable for me.

You have been studying the meaning of work for almost ten years now. I am sure a lot of people would like to know the recipe for a meaningful job from you.

(laughs) Yes, sure. There was a newspaper article that I was interviewed for where an accounting firm did a campaign in which the people working there had to fill in what makes their work most meaningful. The company hoped this would boost productivity.

A meaningful job does boost productivity, doesn’t it?

Yes, it does. People tend to work more hours, they tend to be absent less. And that is exactly the thing. That campaign was done in the service of trying to get more out of people who are not enjoying the work as opposed to helping them think about how they would do their work in a way that would permit it to be meaningful for them – which is a very different question.

What factors would then permit a job to get really meaningful?

The first step would be to give the people a license to control their job, or more flexibility in how they design the tasks and interactions that comprise their work. And though it may feel to managers like giving up control by understanding the persons and giving them the opportunity to build up something, I do think it is the important thing to allow the people to craft their jobs. Anything else is mass customization that comes from the top down.

So a company can’t create the meaning for the people, it just has to provide the right framing?

Yes. The word meaningfulness means the same thing indeed. Meaningfulness to you is the same as meaningfulness to me. But what it is that makes something meaningful is completely different between individuals. It's not about trying to change their whole meaning system as to make work places amenable to them deriving the kind of meaning they want to make of their work, from their work in those organizations.

Regarding todays’ technological changes, the coming up of digitalization that creates a new economy world, where do you see the challenges in creating a meaningful job?

I think we're facing increasingly an economy where people move not only between organizations but create work lives that are disaggregated from any organizational structure at all because they work virtually for multiple firms or multiple contracts. Currently, I'm working on a paper with colleagues on what's consistent across people that work this way. We take that as a clue about what it is that is necessary for people to derive meaning that when so much of this has become either digital or temporary or virtual or just, unstructured. What we are getting from this paper is that this disaggregation puts even more pressure on the work, on the activity of the work and what it tells you about yourself, about the meaning of what you're doing. 

So, because people are not close, have no close relationships to work the importance of the meaning of the work itself might go up, is that right?

Yes. I mean, in the study that we're doing, we're finding evidence that there is so much more pressure on understanding the meaning of what you're doing, if you can no longer locate it. There are fewer boundaries between the work and yourself which makes it even more important to know why you are doing it.

Lisa Kirberg

Lisa Kirberg ist Expertin für Strategieaktivierung beim MLI Leadership Institut München. Sie studierte International Relations and Management an den Universitäten Regensburg und Buenos Aires. Zuletzt arbeitete Sie als Projektleiterin für länderübergreifende Change-Projekte bei der Federation of Canadian Municipalities in Ottawa (Kanada).