Can any work be meaningful (even, for example, alcohol, fast food, and tobacco)?

In 2003 at a Positive Organizational Scholarship Conference in a working session on meaning, several scholars interested in meaning in work and organizations came together and decided to meet up again to talk about their research. The “Meaning Microcommunity” was born. The following year, the first May Meaning Meeting was held at the University of Michigan, and an gathering of 30-35 scholars has been held each year since then. Faculty and doctoral students from across the country gather to share their research and gain a better understanding of how employees experience meaning in and at work.

This year’s meeting was co-hosted by Amy Wrzesniewski, of Yale University, who runs the Meaning Microcommunity, and Christopher Michaelson, of the University of St. Thomas. A pre-meeting, “Research and Practice Dialogue,” was open to the public and hosted by the Opus College of Business. It included Wrzesniewski, along with Mike Pratt of Boston College and Jeff Thompson of Brigham Young University along with panelists from the local business community: Deb Knutson, senior vice president of human resources, learning and facilities, Medica, and Calvin Allen, senior vice president of strategic planning and human resources, HealthPartners.

Dean Christopher Puto remarked that at St. Thomas we teach that the purpose of business is to be a good business that contributes to the common good, and profit is the reward for a good business. Michaelson introduced the audience to some themes in meaningful work research, including questions that he asks his students and some of his own current research questions:

  • What is meaningful work (and is it necessarily moral)?
  • Do we have a moral obligation to do work that is meaningful?
  • How does narrative literature help develop empathy, emotional intelligence, and moral imagination to seek meaning?

Subsequently, the academic panelists summarized their current research. Wrzesniewski summarized several ways in which researchers have studied how work becomes meaningful, focusing on job crafting as a method by which the same work can have different meaning to different workers.


Pratt contended that different work orientations (individualist or non-individualist) require different motivational strategies. He explored organizational practices for making work meaningful for workers with different work orientations, some of them involving meaning in the work itself, and others involving fostering meaning at work.


Thompson discussed his personal story of feeling “battered” by work before he became a scholar, recounting his early research in which he interviewed physicians who saw themselves as heroic. He summarized his most well-known research on the sacrifices zookeepers are willing to make to pursue their calling, “Call of the Wild: Zookeepers, Callings, and the Double-edged Sword of Deeply Meaningful Work.”

The corporate panelists then summarized their own stories from practice. Knutson told a deeply personal story illustrating her contention that meaningful work is a choice, hard work, requiring courage, and changing over time. She recounted how her first goal in work was to please her mother but that she was also inspired by Hubert Humphrey to work to make the world better. In her career, she has discovered that culture influences meaning at work, and doing work well gives work meaning. Now with a community-owned, non-profit HMO, she works for a CEO who wants every employee to find meaning.

Allen says that his organization spends a lot of time creating the culture its leadership wants to cultivate and judges people success through a variety of employee engagement measures. By involving employees in a renewal of the organization’s mission, vision, and values, he wants each employee to see herself or himself in those values.

The panelists then discussed questions with each other and with the audience:

Is there something unique about healthcare that makes it more meaningful?

  • Academic panelists cited research noting that hygiene practices among healthcare workers improve when they are instructed to wash in the interest of the patient’s health and research noting that radiologists’ accuracy improves when given a photograph of the patient. While beneficiaries in healthcare are more tangible, the burnout potential in healthcare is also high.
  • Corporate panelists agreed that the “helping” professions are naturally more closely connected to meaningful work, and that non-profit orientations can support meaningfulness as well.
  • Audience member Tom Holloran, of the University of St. Thomas School of Law, discussed how Medtronic started and how employees have always been encouraged to meet beneficiaries of their products. He told his personal story of how he spoke one year at Medtronic’s Christmas party about how his Medtronic pacemaker had extended his life, and how he vowed to use his extra years well in gratitude for those years.

Can any work be meaningful (even, for example, alcohol, fast food, and tobacco)?

  • Panelists said that regardless of the work, there are people who experience it differently, some as meaningful and some not. That’s good news for organizations who can take on some of the responsibility to help employees craft jobs. But researchers have also cited institutional obligations to provide meaningful work in the form of the freedom to choose.
  • Panelists also discussed how economic standing can affect the freedom to choose meaningful work, but that anybody can seek to craft their jobs to be more meaningful.

Is self-esteem a key variable for “encore” careers?

  • Panelists expressed concerns about the fragility of connecting meaning to an organization instead of to the activity itself. They cited research on West Point cadets who were intrinsically motivated doing better on every measure in their subsequent careers than those who were extrinsically motivated.
  • They also discussed how an organization can help employees be more balanced in their lives so as ultimately to be more productive.

This event was an outstanding opportunity for UST and OCB to engage with the Meaning Microcommunity, with which the university and college missions are so closely aligned.