Meaningful Work Part 3​ – People Who Find Work Meaningful

What factors influence people to find their work meaningful and how much does our nature – or genetics – determine this?

We look at the characteristics of people who naturally find their work more meaningful, across personality and cognitive abilities.

We also discuss the role of Factor A vs Factor B in finding meaning at work, along with values and resilience.

Learn more about what makes people inherently more likely to find their work meaningful.

Watch the next video in the series here:

Part 4 – Meaningful Work Research Study: Key Factors for Meaning at Work

and the previous video here:

Part 2 – Why Meaningful Work Is Essential for Employee Engagement

And if you know of anyone who would benefit from this video, please share it with them.


Video Transcript

Qualities for finding work more meaningful

Welcome to video number three in our five video series about meaningful work.

This one is about the degree to which people can naturally find work meaningful.

So are there certain characteristics that cause people to find work more meaningful?

Here’s a quote from a very long time ago – Heraclitus, the philosopher from ancient Greece (refer to the video). In fact, he was called Heraclitus the Obscure.

He said, “Character is destiny”, and much of what he said was very obscure, but that one is pretty much straightforward. It is to say that your character, the natural makeup that you have, has a huge impact on your life.

Let’s talk a little bit about some things that we know about what makes people more likely to find their work meaningful.

Heritability of job satisfaction

Did you know that job satisfaction is heritable?

And what we see here is about 30% of job satisfaction is largely down to genetic factors (refer to the video).

In other words, there are certain people who will tend to be naturally more likely to take satisfaction in their work.

Genetics and positive emotions

And also things like positive emotions tend to be very heavily genetically influenced.

So some people are just naturally positive. Some people are more naturally cynical and negative.

Now doesn’t mean that those things can’t change somewhat. But the base settings, the natural characteristics that we have have a very strong genetic and epigenetic character to them.

So character in that sense, is destiny.

Cognitive ability and meaning

Cognitive ability can have a significant effect on people’s perception of meaning at work.

So, for instance, we know that verbal, numerical, and abstract reasoning, the three most commonly used measures of cognitive ability, can have an impact on the quality of people’s work.

In fact, cognitive ability, by itself, is one of the best predictors of work outcomes that we’ve found in the world of psychology so far.

But in addition to that, the nature of how smart you are, how cognitively gifted you are, that will have an effect on the degree to which you find your work meaningful and also the type of work that you’re going to find meaningful.

Cognitive ability is positively correlated with both job satisfaction and life satisfaction.

There have been a number of studies over the years that have demonstrated this.

If you’re lucky enough to be born smart and lucky enough to have a positive enough upbringing so that your cognitive ability isn’t suppressed, then you’re lucky because you’re going to earn more, you’re much more likely to be able to be well organised, you are much more likely to be able to deal with the challenges that life throws you.

In effect, people who are smarter have a greater range of options that they can use to respond to things in their life.

Why cognitive match is important

There’s a question of cognitive match in all of this.

So if I’m naturally smart, but I’m doing work which is basic and menial, well, of course, I’m unlikely to find that work anywhere near as meaningful as I would if the work was intellectually complex.

There is no doubt about it, people who are really smart, they need to feed that cognitive ability in order to feel satisfied.

So the smarter you are, the less likely it is that you’ll find satisfaction in doing something that’s repetitive, boring, simple.

On the other hand, if I’m let’s say, modest in my cognitive ability, asking me to do work, which is intrinsically too intellectually challenging for me, that’s likely to cause me to be dissatisfied with my work and also to lack meaning in it.

So it’s a question of cognitive match, making sure that the round peg is in the round hole from a cognitive point of view.

Personality and meaning

But of course, personality has a very substantial impact on people’s levels of how they perceive meaning at work, and some aspects of personality relate to, things like the degree to which somebody is naturally conscientious, which means positive, hardworking, organised; emotionality is a characteristic which is to do with the fact that people tend to be emotionally unstable and tend to perceive relatively modest things as a big deal.

If a person is unlucky enough to have high emotionality, just like I said, if they’re lucky enough to have high cognitive ability, if you’re unlucky enough to have high emotionality, well, if that gets extreme enough, it can be a clinical issue.

But it certainly is related to people’s perceptions of stress at work.

Extroversion and meaning

Extroversion. It is fair to say that most leaders are extroverts, and certainly the world could be argued to have been set up for extroverts, because after all, extroverts tend to assert themselves.

They tend to tell people what they want, and they tend to act to pursue it in a very confident way. Unlike introverts.

Introverts, will tend to be a little bit more tentative in the way that they express things.

But there is no doubt that people who are extroverts often find work a little more meaningful, largely because they really relish the social contact that they get out of their work.

And extroverts do tend to be a little bit more optimistic, a little bit more positive than introverts.

By the way, I’m an introvert, so I’m not dissing introverts unnecessarily. It is, sadly, a research truth that extroverts do tend to be a little better adjusted than we introverts.

Other key personality traits for meaning at work

These personality aspects have also been found to experience meaningfulness at work (refer to the video) – so industriousness, which is very much a product of the psychological characteristic of conscientiousness; volatility, emotionality – people who are highly emotional tend not to find so much positivity in their work or so much meaning.

And enthusiasm. So people who are naturally enthusiastic in that kind of optimistic, positive way that extroverts tend to be, they tend to find their work more meaningful.

The HEXACO model of personality

This is Kibeom Lee and Mike Ashton’s HEXACO model of personality – six key factors (refer to the video).

You’ll see honesty, humility that’s the degree to which somebody is likely to be honest and truthful and straightforward.

This is the emotionality characteristic here, which is to say, when people are highly fearful, they’re anxious, they’re dependent, and dependence means a tendency to have difficulty to establish your own viewpoints and to pursue them.

A dependent person is somebody who wants to be accepted by other people all the time.

And also sentimentality. So when somebody is highly sentimental, what that means is that they feel other people’s emotions very deeply.

Not surprisingly, somebody who is like this, is likely to feel less meaning in their work because they’re experiencing more negatives from their work. Stressors become more stressful for people who are highly emotional.

Conscientiousness is the degree to which somebody is organised, hardworking, perfectionistic, which means I’ve got to get things right and prudent, which means that I’m careful about the decisions that I make.

Somebody who is like this is likely to be more interested in their work, more engaged in their work and find their work more meaningful.

Agreeableness can have an impact on this in the sense that people who are highly agreeable or at least lacking low agreeableness.

Low agreeableness means a naturally angry, difficult person. Where a person is like that, it can be hard for them to find so much meaning in work, largely because they can be involved in conflicts.

And as well as that, we do know that people who have high trait anger, which in the HEXACO model, is low agreeableness.

When people are like that, they do tend to undertake more negative behaviours, bullying, harassment, those kinds of things are more common with people who are naturally angry.

Personality superfactors A & B

Personality has a couple of what are called superfactors.

Now these are sometimes called factor A and factor B or Factor Alpha and Factor Beta. They’re kind of best described in layman’s terms as being getting ahead and getting along.

And people, when they come to work, they find meaning from various purposes.

One of the purposes that gives people meaning is to get along with other people and to enjoy the contact that you have with people at work.

But also, people have a need to get ahead – status, power, control of resources, those kinds of things.

Now, of course, if you’re the sort of person who seeks to get along with other people and you enjoy that, let’s say you’re an agreeable extrovert, which will be the type of person who enjoys being in the same room as other people, either physically or digitally.

If you’re that kind of person, then you’ll take satisfaction out of that contact with other people.

If you’re somebody who wants to get ahead, then you’ll feel satisfied more with the element of being able to advance your career, do challenging stuff, do interesting stuff.

And of course, it may well be that you’re both.

But the getting ahead and the getting along thing is very important because if we’ve hired somebody who wants to get ahead and they don’t get the opportunity to do that, they’re going to find their work less meaningful.

On the other hand, if you’ve hired somebody to get along with other people, their natural tendency is to want to get along with other people and draw from the social contact that they have at work.

Well, they’re going to be less satisfied if they’re working in a job, which is technical. Let’s say it doesn’t have much interpersonal contact. These needs are intertwined with personality, and there is a matching question.

And we know that job performance is directly related to social motives. When people have strong social motives, then they tend to enjoy work that gives them an opportunity to contribute.

The role of values in meaning

Now, I want to talk about values.

Values are very poorly understood in the world of management.

So people think of values as the words that you put on a statement at the start of your website, and typically it’ll be something like teamwork and integrity and those kinds of things. Well, in fact, you could call those values.

But there has been significant research by people like Shalom Schwartz into values from a scientific point of view, where values are mapped, they’re assessed, they’re statistically analysed.

And we know, for instance, that there are ten basic values for individuals and they seem to be extremely consistent across the world (refer to the video).

That is to say, these ten values, it doesn’t seem to matter whether you’re from Argentina or from West Footscray in Victoria, you will have these ten values.

Now, of course, the people in Argentina and West Footscray have quite different values on balance, but the ten values apply worldwide.

Now, what are values? Values are goals that we learn in growing up and we learn them from significant others.

Interestingly, we tend to learn them more from people outside of our immediate family group, Mum and Dad, we tend to learn more from people like uncles, cousins, teachers, friends than we do from our immediate family group.

And Schwartz hypothesises that that’s for evolutionary reasons.

In other words, diversity of behaviours causes the likelihood of survival, and the diversity of the behaviours comes from learning from people other than our immediate family group.

In other words, if the family groups challenged, everybody does the same thing. Well, the gene line is wiped out in effect, if it’s a bad response.

On the other hand, if we learn a diversity of responses from people around us, we’re much more likely to be able to survive in a range of different situations. In effect, it’s a resilience characteristic.

But values tend to affect people’s meaning at work very heavily. So, you know the people’s values will have a big impact on how much effort they invest in commitment and in engagement with their work.

But values is also strongly a determinant of the degree to which somebody fits in with colleagues.

So if you have a values match with your colleagues, you’re likely to fit in and you’re likely to feel meaning because, hey, I’m in an environment where people think the same as I do, I feel comfortable here. People seem to like me, I like them.

So values match is a big contributor to people’s sense of meaning at work.

Schwartz model of values

This is the Schwartz model of values (refer to the video), and you’ll see that there are four key anchors here – conservation, which is I believe that I want to keep what I’ve got and I want to look after the things that are important to me.

Self-enhancement that’s much more about getting ahead. That’s where I want to be ambitious. I want to advance my career. I want to do things that I haven’t done before.

Openness to change is all about the degree to which I’m comfortable to do new stuff and even take a risk in order to do that.

Self-transcendence is all about helping the world.

And I’ll focus on a couple of these just to explain the nature of values match or values mismatch and how it might affect the degree to which people perceive meaning in their work.

Universalism. It’s not a very self-explanatory term, but what universalism means in the Schwartz model is the degree to which somebody wants to make the world a better place.

And there are two key components to universalism. One is a sense of social justice. I want people to be treated fairly, and the second component is environmental sustainability.

Interesting, isn’t it that those two things link?

There is neurological evidence that the parts of the brain that divide environmental sustainability consciousness are in fact, virtually identical to the parts of the brain that are about social justice, which may explain why virtually every Greens party around the world isn’t just about the environment.

They’re also about social justice as well. There’s a neurological reason for that.

But let’s say I’m a universalistic person and I go to work for a company that doesn’t care about these things. Let’s say they’re profit-orientated at all costs. Well, I’m not going to fit in there so much.

I’m not going to feel comfortable, and I’m also not going to have the level of perceived meaning at my work, as I would if there was a values match.

On the other hand, going back to the diagram (refer to the video), achievement is all about the degree to which I’m ambitious. I want to get ahead. So it’s not achievement in the sense of just getting things done. It’s achievement in the sense of achieving in my career.

And you’ll notice that it’s virtually at the opposite side of the diagram from universalism.

So if I am a highly driven individual and I want to get ahead in my career, and I’m very ambitious, but the group seems to be very focused on social justice, and they’re not so concerned with that. Then, of course, I’m unlikely to be a match to that workplace.

So values match is a big contributor to people’s perceptions of meaning at work.

When we have a values match, we are much more likely to find our work meaningful.

The types of people who naturally find work more meaningful

So it is true to say that there are certain people who are just more naturally likely to find their work meaningful, people who are optimistic, positive, people who are lacking in cynicism, anger, people who are emotionally stable, they’re more likely to find their work meaningful.

Also, how smart you are has an effect.

If I’m really smart and I’m doing work, that’s beneath me from a cognitive point of view, from an intellectual point of view, then of course, I’m much less likely to find my work meaningful.

The opposite is also true. If I’m doing work, which I simply feel that I can’t get on top of, then that makes it more difficult.

But once you have all of that, it’s a good idea to hire people who are values matches. People who have characteristics who suits the value set of the team that they’re going onto.

By the way, you will find that the values in an organisation will change team by team. People think of values as being pan organisational – not true.

The values of a sales team will almost always be different from the values of, let’s say, an accounting team, largely because the nature of the work attracts people who have different values.

Of course, there are likely to be common values organizationally, but the difference from team can be very important. Wellbeing, comes from the local team that you’re in.

So you can recruit people who are much more likely to find their work meaningful.

And if you’re interested in pursuing this, then follow the links below this video, and we can show you how to do that.

So that’s module three in our video series on meaningful work.

The next one, we’re going to show you some really interesting data.

We’ve gathered data from about 2700 people across Australia and New Zealand, and we’re going to show you what types of people tend to find their work more meaningful.

For instance, do different industries have different levels of perceived meaning at work.

Watch the next video to find out more about meaning at work:

Part 4 – Meaningful Work Research Study: Key Factors for Meaning at Work

Or watch the previous video about meaningful work:

Part 2 – Why Meaningful Work Is Essential for Employee Engagement

And if you’d like some help creating more meaningful work for your employees, contact us to discuss our Workforce Planning services.