Four pathways to meaning

another year over... by piotr (peter) chlipalski

I have no idea what it means but I like it.

Regular readers of this blog will know that a recurring theme is the notion of meaning in our working lives. I’m also a big fan of simple models and frameworks to help structure and analyse complex ideas. So, I was excited to discover an article which not only conducted an extensive review of the literature of meaning in work, but which presented a simple way of categorising the various ways in which people find meaning.

They win my approval straight away by telling off other contributors to the subject for not making a distinction between ‘meaning’ and ‘meaningfulness’. They argue that ‘meaning’ should refer to the type of value people place on their work and ‘meaningfulness’ should refer to the amount of such meaning they attach to it. I’m all for a bit of constructive pedantry.

After that, they undertake a structured summary of the various strands of thinking on meaning in work. To give you an idea of how thorough and orderly it is, here is the list of headings.

  • The meaning of ‘‘meaning’’ and ‘‘meaningfulness’’
    • Meaning
    • Meaningfulness
    • Differentiating the terms
  • Sources of the meaning of work
    • The self and the meaning of work
      • Values
      • Motivation
      • Beliefs
    • Others and the meaning of work
      • Coworkers
      • Leaders
      • Groups and communities
      • Family
    • The work context and the meaning of work
      • Design of job tasks
      • Organizational mission
      • Financial circumstances
      • Non-work domains
      • National culture
    • Spiritual life and the meaning of work
      • Spirituality
      • Sacred callings
  • How work becomes meaningful: mechanisms of meaning
    • Authenticity
    • Self-efficacy
    • Self-esteem
    • Purpose
    • Belongingness
    • Transcendence
    • Cultural and interpersonal sensemaking

They then permanently endear themselves to me by putting it all together in a structured framework by categorising the various mechanisms of meaning over two different dimensions.

The vertical dimension addresses the motivation for meaning making.

  • Agency is the drive to differentiate, to separate, to assert, to expand, to master and to create.
  • Communion is the drive to contact, to attach, to connect and to unite.

The horizontal dimension addresses the orientation or target of the meaningful action.

  • Self – internally focused on the individual.
  • Others – externally focused on other people, groups, societies or wider ideals.

This leads to four major pathways to meaningful work:

  • Individuation – actions that define and distinguish the self as valuable and worthy
  • Contribution – actions perceived as significant to or done in the service of others or something greater than the self
  • Self-connection – actions that bring the individual into closer alignment with the way they perceive themselves
  • Unification – actions that bring the individual into harmony with other beings or principles

Pathways to Meaning

Tell me what you think…

Further reading

  • Rosso, B.D., Dekas, K.H. & Wrzesniewski, A. (2010). On the meaning of work: A theoretical integration and review Research in Organizational Behavior, 30, 91-127. DOI: 10.1016/j.riob.2010.09.001
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  1. #1 by nick on 14 September 2012 - 11:22

    Thanks for this David – i can see why you are attracted to this model, but rather surprisingly, i too find a serenity in its logical and over-defined simplicity ;)

  2. #2 by David Winter on 14 September 2012 - 11:28

    Thanks Nick.

    Yes, one part of my brain is shouting “This is a gross over-simplification of a very complex subject!”. Another part of my brain is sighing “Oh, but it’s beautiful in it’s orderliness.” Yet another part of my brain is scheming, “Hmm! I don’t care if it’s true or beautiful; I can imagine using this with clients!”

  3. #3 by Tarja on 20 September 2012 - 11:49

    Hello David – a fascinating post!
    Slightly off tangent: if you’re interested in finding out about the different sides of your brain and why they think/work so differently, you might find Iain McGilchrist’s book The Master and His Emissary useful.
    Thank you for a great blog!

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