Today’s workers are looking for more than a paycheck from their job: they want to feel like their work matters and has an impact. With people spending the majority of their waking hours working, feeling fulfilled at work can be an important factor to feeling fulfilled in life. But it can be challenging to find a job that will be meaningful to you, and once you’ve found a job, to experience your daily work life as meaningful. New research suggests that one way of doing so can be through being proactive: in a paper published in Applied Psychology: An International Review (1), Karoline Strauss (ESSEC Business School), Doris Fay, Christopher Schwake, and Tina Urbach (the latter three all of the University of Potsdam), explored how proactive behavior fosters meaningfulness at work.
Why meaning matters
When someone experiences their work as meaningful, it means they feel that what they’re doing is significant and has a positive impact (2). Work also seems meaningful when people feel that they form a connection with the future, when what they do today has an impact in the future. This is helpful to people psychologically, since we like to feel that we have some control over our fate.
Why does it matter if your work is meaningful, as long as you’re bringing home a healthy salary? It turns out that it matters quite a bit to quite a lot of people: meaningful work has been linked to job satisfaction, engagement, and motivation. And it’s not just good for the employee: it can also be linked to positive outcomes for the employer, like low absenteeism and boosting commitment and job performance (3). In short, finding work meaningful is beneficial for both employees and employers.
But what if your job does not directly involve changing people’s lives for the better, fighting the climate crisis, or making the world a better place in some other way, at least not every day? How can we find meaning in what we do at work on a day-to-day basis? One of the ways is by bringing about positive change at work and taking initiative.
Why taking matters into your own hands matters
Dr. Strauss explains that proactive work behavior entails taking initiative to bring about positive change in the workplace. These initiatives can be to improve current procedures, propose new ideas, and identify the cause of problems to prevent their recurrence (4). An employee might suggest changing to a new software or create an Excel template to make operations more efficient, for example. Proactive work behaviors aren’t part of an individual’s official job description, and require additional independent effort.
The pursuit of meaning and proactivity
To look at the interplay between proactive work behavior and work meaningfulness, the researchers explored the link between proactive work behaviors and meaningful work in a series of studies, using stories and a daily diary study.
They found that people’s sense of meaningfulness can fluctuate from day to day - so it’s not a static experience, but is subject to change over time, and is shaped by daily experiences. One such daily experience is proactive work behavior. On a day when people say that they were more proactive, they also reported higher levels of meaningfulness, likely because they felt like their behavior could have a positive effect on the future.
Another key piece of the puzzle is how unpredictable people feel their future is. Dr. Strauss explains: “This refers to the extent to which people feel uncertain about the impact that their decisions will have in the future, and specifically decisions they make as part of their official job duties”. If people feel this uncertainty about how their daily duties will connect with the future, it’s hard to see the long-term impact of their work, so they compensate for this by engaging in proactive behavior. People who felt like their job was especially unpredictable benefited the most from proactive behavior, in that they experienced the biggest boost to work meaningfulness.
In a nutshell: when people are more proactive at work, they feel that their work is more meaningful, especially when they’re otherwise unsure about the impact their tasks will have.
What does this mean for managers and employees?
People are looking to feel fulfilled and valued at work, and this feeling can come from seeing what you do as meaningful. This research shows that individuals have a role to play in making their work meaningful, and their own behavior can lead to that fulfillment. With much of the past research devoted to exploring how employers can make work more meaningful for their employees, it’s useful to know that individuals have agency in this process.
It’s also valuable information for employers. Some organizations have attempted to foster meaningful work for their employees through organizational initiatives, but these risk coming off as inauthentic and even manipulative (5). Instead, managers can encourage employees to take initiative and be receptive to it when they do.
Being proactive at work can make work feel more meaningful, even though being proactive is not without its negative effects on well-being. That being said, the positive effects of infusing one’s work with meaning may help compensate for the negative effects on well-being. This sense of meaning is linked to the connection with the future, expanding the sense of “meaningfulness” beyond its standard definition as a side effect of helping others. This relationship between proactive behavior and meaningfulness can fluctuate, even on a daily basis. As Dr. Strauss adds, “Meaningful work is fluid: when people are lacking meaning in one situation, they try to compensate for it in other situations.” In this case, when people feel unsure about how their actions will impact the future, they make up for that by being proactive and creating meaning in that way.
The meaning of life might still be an elusive concept- but when it comes to finding meaning at work, being proactive can be one way to get the job done.
Fay, D., Strauss, K., Schwake, C., & Urbach, T. (2022). Creating meaning by taking initiative: Proactive work behavior fosters work meaningfulness. Applied Psychology.
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
Bailey, C., Yeoman, R., Madden, A., Thompson, M., & Kerridge, G. (2019). A review of the empirical literature on meaningful work: Progress and research agenda. Human Resource Development Review, 18(1), 83-113. doi:10.1177/1534484318804653
Frese, M., & Fay, D. (2001). Personal initiative: An active performance concept for work in the 21st century. Research in Organizational Behavior, 23, 133-187. doi:10.1016/S0191-3085(01)23005-6
Michaelson, C., Pratt, M. G., Grant, A. M., & Dunn, C. P. (2014). Meaningful work: Connecting business ethics and organization studies. Journal of Business Ethics, 121(1), 77-90.