A number of interesting studies look at the human drive for seeking meaning and provide lessons for those who are responsible for designing jobs.

Psychologists Travis Proulx (University of California) and Steven Heine (University of British Columbia) ran several experiments in 2009 in which they asked volunteers to read texts that ranged from nonsensical to confusing to disorientating.  When done with the reading, the volunteers took a difficult test in which they were asked to find patterns in long and what appeared to be random strings of letters.  The researchers found that those who read the disorienting text were able to correctly identify more patterns overall than others who were provided ‘normal’ text, and even saw patterns where there were none.  Variations of this experiment realised the same results – volunteers who were subjected to a disorienting experience responded with a need to find meaning at a cognitive level anywhere they could.  Proulx and Heine concluded that the human need for order and predictability may be fundamental to the human condition, and with predictability would come psychological power.

Michael Gazzaniga is a leading brain scientist and pioneer of cognitive neuroscience.  He has famously conducted experiments with split-brain patients who have had the connections between the two brain hemispheres severed.  These patients enable testing to isolate how the brain hemispheres function separately but create a cognitive whole.  Gazzaniga’s research suggests that the left hemisphere is an ‘interpreter’ that ensures that individuals are able to preserve and protect a holistic sense of self.  The drive to create the stories that rationalise an individual’s action are so powerful that the mind develops beliefs at lightning speed that form part of an individual’s sense of identity.

In The Ethical Brain (2005), Gazzaniga writes, “Any time our left brain is confronted with information that does not jibe with our self-image, knowledge, or conceptual framework, our left-hemisphere interpreter creates a belief to enable all incoming information to make sense and mesh with our ongoing idea of our self.  The interpreter seeks patterns, order, and causal relationships.”

Most organisations recognise that ‘meaning’ is important for the sort of worker engagement that increases commitment and productivity.  Their rationale is if work is meaningful workers will experience a sense of purpose, will have greater confidence that goals can be reached, and that ambitions can be realised.   The process of defining measurable/observable values for achievement and performance create  an illusion that measures create meaning because they can control and measure it.  We allow key performance indicators and competencies to define what we are capable of and ‘meaning’ is taken at no more than face value.

However, the conclusions from these studies suggest that people will find meaning anyway because that is what humans need.  The mission/goals/measuring progress paradigm also fails to take into account the way the brain works.  It assumes that people are continuously working at the fully rational level and does not account for the fact that our cognitive level is only an interpretation of how our brain has responded to what it has experienced.  Michael Gazzaniga describes one incident that illustrates how readily the left brain interpreter makes up stories and beliefs. In the experiment, the word walk was presented only to the right side of a patient’s brain, he got up and started walking.  When he was asked why he did this, the left brain (where language is stored and where the word walk was not presented) quickly created a reason for the action: “I wanted to go get a Coke.”

Far from being contrived and defensive responses to justify actions, the brain actually changes in line with these beliefs.  In an experiment carried out with artists, when asked which art they preferred from selected galleries, the artists consistently thought the art from galleries that had sponsored them were better.  This was not just a case of favourtism, brain scans that monitored the artists’ neurological responses actually showed the relevant parts of the brain lit up showing that the artists actually did prefer the art from gallery that had sponsored them, showing how the brain continuously moulds an individual’s understanding of the world to match the person’s sense of self.

When we experience inconsistency between cognitions (beliefs, actions, ideas, values and so on) the state of tension or stress, called ‘cognitive dissonance’ is a condition well understood by many.  The theory was developed by American social psychologist, Professor Leon Festinger.  In 1959 he conducted an experiment with a colleague, James M. Carlsmith, in which participants were asked to complete a monotonous task – repeatedly filling and emptying a tray with 12 spools and turning 48 square pegs in a board clockwise – for an hour.  Some participants were paid $1 for the task, and others were paid $20.  When they completed the task they were asked to tell the next person about to complete the task how much they enjoyed it.  As Festinger and Carlsmith expected, those who were paid $1 were more likely to give a much more positive explanation to the next person than those paid more.  Their mindset adapted so that they believe that they DID enjoy the task.  The people who received $20 didn’t have to justify anything – the task was boring, but for $20, who cared?  There is little or no dissonance in the $20 situation.

Meaning comes from identity, i.e. “This is important to me because this is who I am.”  Studies such as those described here help us understand how the brain works to manage and support a person’s identity.  How can we use this knowledge to improve meaning for workers so that their engagement with their work is genuine and fulfilling?  How can we reduce the stress that comes from a need for continuous reduction of tension created from the conflict between workers’ identity and the work they do?

Dr Adam Grant, Wharton organisational psychologist, has explored the connection between meaning and performance for many years.  In one study of workers at Borders, employees were asked to contribute to an employee-beneficiary fund that would be managed by the staff, with Borders matching donated funds.  The money was set aside for employees in need, for instance, someone facing financial hardship, or attending the funeral of a loved one.  Interestingly, Grant found that it was not the beneficiaries who showed the most significant increase in their commitment to Borders; it was the donors, even those who gave just a few dollars a week.  Through interviews and questionnaires, Grant determined that “as a result of gratitude to the company for the opportunity to affirm a valued aspect of their identities, they developed stronger affective commitment to the company.”

The answer to improving engagement at work, studies confirm, is affected by meaning, however research indicates it goes the opposite to the normal approach of standardising labour inputs.  Rather than the ability to compare, target and measure our efforts against a homogeneous list, what seems to work better is letting people just be who they really are.