Return on Investment


Question: what would make you happier at work? What would make you work harder? What motivates you to get out of bed in the morning? Money or meaning? Both? Most people say money but an increasing amount of research suggests that this is misguided and that what really matters to most people and what really motivates employees are less quantifiable concepts such as ‘purpose’ and ‘meaning’.


Scientific studies

1: Why do we work? The question seems simple. But Professor Barry Schwartz proves that the answer is somewhat surprising, and complex in his book Why We Work.

We’ve long been taught that the reason we work is primarily for a pay-check. In fact, we’ve shaped much of the infrastructure of our society to accommodate this belief. Then why are so many people dissatisfied with their work, despite healthy compensation? And why do so many people find immense fulfilment and satisfaction through “menial” jobs? Schwartz explores why so many believe that the goal for working should be to earn money, how we arrived to believe that paying workers more leads to better work, and why this has made our society confused, unhappy, and has established a dangerously misguided system.


Most companies are sucking the soul out of work, making it impossible to find meaning or purpose. By so doing, these companies hurt their own performance.


The problem starts with our schools and the ‘teach to the test’ mentality where performance is measured. This is what he calls ‘assembly-line’ education. It drives out energy, engagement and enthusiasm. The problem is companies create ‘complete contracts’ as opposed to ‘incomplete contracts’ in which some job directives and duties are specified while others are not. Many organizations try to make contracts more complete by providing concrete incentives which kill creativity and innovation. Employees simply don’t do the best they can in this situation – they do what is rewarded, ONLY. If these incentives were removed people would be motivated by their desire to excel and contribute – industry coming from integrity.

Through scientific studies and anecdotes, this book dispels this myth. Schwartz takes us through hospitals and hair salons, bars and boardrooms, showing workers in all walks of life, showcasing the trends and patterns that lead to happiness in the workplace. Ultimately, Schwartz proves that the root of what drives us to do good work can rarely be incentivised, and that the cause of bad work is often an attempt to do just that. It proves Frankl’s philosophy convincingly.


2. In ‘How Successful People Find Meaning in their Work’, Shane Lebowitz cites scientific studies conducted by Yale School of Management Professor, Amy Wrzesniewski on how people find meaning in their work and how such people are more successful than those who don’t both individually and in terms of the profitability of their organisations as a whole. The difference between those who found their work meaningful and those who don’t was that the first group did work that wasn’t listed in their job description – ‘job crafting’. Such employees moulded their jobs to become more meaningful by adding extra tasks and changing their attitudes and perceptions. Studies show that those who ‘job craft’ are happier and performed better than their co-workers who didn’t go through this ‘meaning-centred’ process. Job-crafting is beneficial for the individual employee and for the company. It transforms employees from being passive consumers to co-authors of their work experience. Instead of waiting for the boss to assign them a new project or role they can ask themselves: ‘what can I do to the job right now to make that work more meaningful?’


3: ‘Spirituality in Practice: Relationships between Meaning in Life and Commitment and Motivation’ by De Klerk et al of the University of Pretoria, Journal of Management, Spirituality and Religion.


Examines Meaning in the Workplace.

Found a correlation between meaning and work motivation.

6 hypotheses were tested. Meaning was found to be a significant factor in intrinsic motivation and goal orientation.

Quoting from the paper: ‘The study highlights an important relationship between a person’s sense of meaning in life and their careers’. Evidence of link between meaning and career-commitment.


‘It is clear that organizations will benefit from helping employees in their quest to align their careers with meaning in their lives’.

‘Viktor Frankl was one of the most influential authors on meaning in life. The findings in this study provide support for several of Frankl’s assertions on meaning in the workplace’.


4. ‘The Psychological Condition of Meaningfulness, Safety and Availability and the Engagement of the Human Spirit at Work’, by D. May et al from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology (2004), 11-34.


Study on the effects of three psychological conditions: meaningfulness, safety and availability on employees’ engagement in their work.

Results: ‘all three psychological conditions exhibited significant positive relations with engagement. Meaningfulness displayed the strongest relation’. ‘Job enrichment and work role fit were positively linked to psychological meaningfulness’.

The study concludes: ‘managers should attempt to foster meaningfulness’.


5. In ‘Man’s Search for Meaning: The Case of Legos’, published in the Journal of Economic Behaviour, Dan Aniely investigated the impact of meaningful conditions on productivity and labour supply; it was developed by a student of his who works in a leading bank. Two experiments were conducted. Results: meaning derives from a connection between work and purpose. And: Small effects of meaning have large effects on labour. More meaning leads to greater employee effort.


6. In ‘Logo-OD: The Applicability of Logotherapy as an Organisation Development Intervention’, Daniel Burger examined the relationship between resistance to or readiness for change and meaning-seeking by surveying 1,637 individuals and found that logotherapy ‘is a positive trigger for organizational change’.


7. In Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success, Dr Adam Grant of the University of Pennsylvania argues that showing people that the work they do positively impacts on others (what Frankl calls ‘self-transcendence) can boost the feeling of meaningfulness and improve the quality of work. A sense of purpose comes from a mission that matters. He demonstrates that employees identify with occupations not organizations and that meaning mainly lies in the service economy. Purpose and meaning aren’t scripted by a charismatic boss but shaped by the people who hold the job. Employees who find work meaningful are those who have become architects of their own work (‘job crafting’). Where meaning is missing, such people take the initiative and make meaning through side projects. Meaning-making is an act of self-expression – a chance for us to reveal who we are in what we do. He quotes Studs Terkel who interviewed thousands of people about their jobs: ‘Work is about a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread’. Meaning is ultimately about what we do, not where we do it.


(Professor Grant, author of Give and Take – a New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller. Source: Blog: ‘The #1 Feature of a Meaningless Job’, Huffington Post, January 30, 2014. Updated: March 3rd, 2015).


Asked what people want in a job, meaningfulness looms large. For decades, Americans have ranked purpose as their top priority. 40 years of research has shown the link between meaningful work and helping others (success as service).


A comprehensive analysis of date from more than 11,000 employees across industries shows that the single strongest predictor of meaningfulness was the belief that the job had a positive impact on others.


Interviews with a representative sample of Americans: more than half reported that the core purpose of their jobs was to benefit others.


Surveys of people around the world: in defining what an activity qualified as meaningful work ‘if it contributes to society’ was the most common choice in the US, China, and Eastern Europe.


Studies of people who view their work as a calling not only a career (drawing on the researches of Prof. Amy Wrzersnievski – the world’s leading expert on the meaning of work) shows that a core element of a calling is the belief that your work makes the world a better place.


Key factor: to connect directly. In many cases our jobs do have a positive impact on others but we’re too distant from the end users of our products and services (alienation) to really appreciate and notice this. Eg., when university fundraisers met a single student whose scholarship was funded by their work, they increased 142% in weekly phone minutes and over 400% in weekly revenue. When radiologists saw a patient’s photo included in an x-ray file, they wrote 29% longer reports and made 46% more accurate diagnoses.


That’s why leaders at John Deere (a manufacturing company) invite employees who build tractors to meet the farmers who buy the tractors; leaders at Facebook invite software developers to hear from users who have found long-lost friends and family thanks to the site, and leaders at Wells Fargo film videos of customers describing how low-interest loans have rescued them from debt.


When we see the direct consequences of our jobs for others we find greater meaning. Susan Dominus (New York Times columnist): ‘The greatest source of motivation is a sense of service to others’.


Amy Wrzersnievski and Justin Berg label ‘job crafting’ this attempt to secure meaning from work by going the extra mile. When people ‘craft’ their jobs they become happier and more effective. In an experiment at Google, Prof Grant invited salespeople and administrators to spend 90 minutes doing the ‘Job Crafting Exercise’, in which they mapped out ways to make their tasks and interactions more meaningful and contribute more to others. Six weeks later their managers and co-workers ranked them as happier and more effective. Grant writes: ‘When they developed new skills to support more significant changes, the happiness and performance gains lasted for at least 6 months’.


Like all things, meaning can be pushed too far. As the psychologist Brian Little observes: ‘If we turn our trivial pursuits into magnificent obsessions we gain meaning at the price of manageability’, which leads to burnout.


Most people report the opposite problem: of having too little meaning. Grant concludes his study by quoting Viktor Frankl about the importance of helping others in order to make our own work worthwhile. Being human always points to something beyond oneself.


Other studies:

Columbia University study: shows that middle managers (people with not a lot of authority but with a lot of demands) experience the highest rates of depression (14% as distinct from 12% of the rest of the workforce) and anxiety (11% as distinct from 7%). Answer: to find more meaning.


University of Michigan study: found that people who think they can develop a passion for pretty much any job (thus validating Frankl’s position that it is more about the person than the profession) are just as satisfied as people who think they need to find a job that suits their personal passions. You can work within present circumstances to create a career that is meaningful.


In Spiritual Capital: Wealth we Can Live By, Danah Zohar presents a new vision of capitalist society that transcends the greed, materialism, and meaninglessness so rampant today. It offers an idea of wealth, profit, and capital that's about more about meaning than money. “Profit” under this system, would be not merely for private gain but would be used in part for public good. “Wealth” would be that which enriches the deeper aspects of our lives, gained by drawing upon our most fundamental purposes and highest motivations and finding a way to embed these in our work. It would involve reflecting a values-based business culture.


Peter Drucker (a pioneer in management and leadership studies) writes of the importance of knowledge and self-managing (freedom and responsibility: two of Frankl’s most emphasised qualities).


Harvard Business school professors John Kotter and James Heskett mounted a four year research project to determine what is behind a ‘strong’ corporate culture that bred performance success. In Corporate Culture and Performance they found that strong cultures sometimes damage company performance. They describe the organisations that got it right: ‘The leaders got their managers to buy into a timeless philosophy – values that cynics would liken to motherhood’. The organisations that adhered to a meaning-centred philosophy outperformed those that didn’t by a huge margin. ‘Over an eleven-year period, the former ... grew their stock prices by 901% versus 74% [for the latter], and improved their net incomes by 756% versus 1%’.



The greatest investment you can make is in your employees.
The wellness of your workforce is the real wealth.