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    The StratEDgy blog is intended to be a thoughtful hub for discussion about strategy and competition in higher education.


Meaningful Work

Why do we all work in higher education?

January 4, 2017

As I was reviewing some material for an upcoming course Dayna and I teach, I came across an article that made me reflect on why I – and I suspect many of you – work in higher education.

Catherine Bailey and Adrian Madden interviewed 135 people working in 10 different occupations – including academics, entrepreneurs, garbage collectors, lawyers, retail assistants, and stone masons – and wrote up their findings in “What Makes Work Meaningful – or Meaningless?” from the Summer 2016 issue of MIT Sloan Management Review. The article notes that: “ . . . researchers have shown meaningfulness to be more important to employees than any other aspect of work, including pay and rewards, opportunities for promotion or working conditions.” This rings true for most people I know in higher education – they chose their career, whether in teaching, research, or administration largely because they believe in the mission of higher education and want to have a positive impact on individuals, communities, economies, and societies. It’s a bit of a calling.

Leadership matters in meaningful work, but not in the way many people might think. According to Bailey and Madden: “. . . our research showed that quality of leadership received virtually no mention when people described meaningful moments at work, but poor management was the top destroyer of meaningfulness.”

The authors note that, while what is meaningful is “intensely personal and individual,” there are five broad themes in how people that identify as doing meaningful work describe their jobs:

  1. Self –Transcendent. It often involved being part of something bigger than oneself: “Individuals tended to experience their work as meaningful when it mattered to others more than just to themselves . . . they talked about the impact or relevance their work had for other individuals, groups, or the wider environment.”
  2. Poignant. It’s not all about being happy: Our research suggests that, contrary to what we may have thought; meaningfulness is not always a positive experience. In fact, those moments when people found their work meaningful tended to be far richer and more challenging than times when they felt simply motivated, engaged, or happy.”
  3. Episodic. Not every day is meaningful, but the meaningful moments carry over: ”It seemed that no one could find their work consistently meaningful, but rather that an awareness that work was meaningful arose at peak times that were generative of strong experiences . . . these peak experiences have a profound effect on individuals, are highly memorable, and become part of their life narratives.”
  4. Reflective. People don’t always think their job is meaningful in the moment: “Meaningfulness was rarely experienced in the moment, but rather in retrospect and on reflection when people were able to see their completed work and make connections between their achievements and a wider sense of life meaning. . . The experience of meaningfulness is . . . often a thoughtful, retrospective act rather than just a spontaneous emotional response in the moment, although people may be aware of a rush of good feelings at the time.”
  5. Personal. It’s highly individualized: “Work that is meaningful . . . is often understood by people not just in the context of their work but also in the wider context of their personal life experiences.”

For me, working in higher ed very much fits the above criteria and is indeed very meaningful whether it’s been as an instructor, as an administrator, or as a consultant. What we, as individuals and as a sector, do is important. The mission is compelling. The results matter, both in the short term and the long term. And, while a lot of the work can be quite challenging (and not always in the positive sense of the word), ultimately the work is important and bigger than ourselves.


What do you find most meaningful about your job/work in higher education? Are there factors (beyond management or institutional leadership) that diminish the meaning of the work? 





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