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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work-Life Balance

There's Only One Person Standing Between You and a Meaningful Job

man checking email on way to work

If you hate your job, there’s a good chance that you also have strong feelings toward your manager, and that they’re not very good feelings at that. Bad bosses are one of the top reasons people quit their jobs or dread going to work, so it seems logical that employees who struggle to find meaning in their work don’t cite good leadership when asked about their job.

Catherine Bailey and Adrian Madden, researchers at different universities, were interested in understanding more about how people come to have jobs that they describe as meaningful. Is it the fancy office kitchen? The nap room? The free snacks? An awesome boss who really cares? Bailey and Madden published the results of their interviews with 135 people across 10 different industries in MIT Sloan Management Review, and found that it’s none of the above.

Rather, they write in their findings: “People tended to speak of their work as meaningful in relation to thoughts or memories of significant family members such as parents or children, bridging the gap between work and the personal realm.”

So while a good relationship with your boss is one important piece of the job puzzle, it’s not the one that’ll offer you feelings of satisfaction and fulfillment. That’s got to come from within. A remarkable supervisor can attempt to help his employee identify meaning in the day-to-day work, but without a personal sense of care and concern, it won’t matter much.

Of course, as predicted, if you’re answering to a terrible boss, job satisfaction will likely be hard—if not impossible—to come by. In fact, NY Mag’s The Science of Us explains that Bailey and Madden discovered that “the top destroyer of meaningfulness” was bad management. It’s unlikely that you’re ever going to find a remote sense of well-being at your job if you have a crappy boss.

This is obviously not fun information for anyone hoping to stick around in spite of a less than ideal manager situation, and if doing work that feels meaningful is something you aspire to, and you’ve examined and reexamined the circumstances that have you feeling the way you do about your manager, well then, it may be time to start looking for something new.

But, if you’re in the camp that feels so-so about your boss—you neither think she’s all that nor do you dream of the day she gets canned—and you don’t consider your work meaningful, it’s probably time for some self-evaluation and reflection. Do you believe in the mission of your organization? Do you take pride in your work and the work of your colleagues’? Do you find yourself getting excited about where the company is headed and what that might mean for you as you grow with it? When was the last time you felt passionate about the project in front of you?

If you’re at a complete loss and have no memory of every having felt really good about your efforts at your workplace for any reason, then you might be in the wrong role or employed at the wrong place. It’s one thing not to chug the company Kool-Aid—it’s quite another to feel lackluster and apathetic when it comes to your position and all that it entails.

Because you deserve to produce meaningful work and derive satisfaction beyond the free Friday breakfasts, it's worth it to start looking around if your current place of employment just isn't doing it for you.