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The #MeaningfulWork Code: 20 Years of Research & What You Can Do About It!

It turns out that "follow your passion" is not the best advice for those seeking meaningful work. Comments like these tend to leave people feeling more frustrated and helpless. A brand new study reveals critical evidence about what meaningful work actually is, and does so by examining over 20 years of research on the subject! Before we jump into these career-hacks, do you find your work meaningful and energizing? Here are a few ways to tell:

  • What percentage of your workday is spent on projects that produce the type of change that you personally believe is needed in your organization or community?

  • What percentage of your workday includes mundane "busy work" that ChatGPT might do for you, rather than challenges that call for your unique talents - skills and abilities that you're not just good at, but feel genuinely connected to?

  • And finally, what percentage of your workday do you experience sense of feeling whole and fully immersed?

If you answer to any of these questions is less than 30%, keep reading. It could change your life. And if you scored high, keep reading anyway, be nice and share this article with a colleague who is struggling or an employer who could use help revitalizing their workforce!

So, how do we find meaningful work? Is there a way we might transform our current job into a professional "calling"? Can teammates work together to the support growth and development of meaningful work for each other? And how might HR leaders support efforts to turn careers into livelihoods that attract, retain and promote highly engaged talent? Let's stop guessing and turn to the research!

A recent study published in the Journal of Advancements in Management Research has unified 20 years of theoretical and substantive contributions on the subject of meaningful work, and reveals that meaningful work is often associated with individual self-realization that goes beyond personal satisfaction. Meaningful work also requires mindful alignment between your values, goals, and behaviors. This study also reveals that meaningful work is typically experienced as a highly personalized and unique psychological state. And it's not a one shot deal... it's an ongoing exercise that requires regular construction through a dynamic sense-making process, because what we find meaningful (you guessed it) changes over time!

Now let's dive a little deeper and examine why these findings matter so much! Here are ten key takeaways from this research around what it takes to find and support meaningful work

#1 Individual Self-Realization Meaningful work is associated with a process called individual self-realization. In other words, it's about finding what's personally meaningful to you, not just following a general trend. This is reflected in one's identity and thinking and is associated with self-connectedness and authenticity.

The core of meaningful work is positively associated with individual work, indicating that a basic tenet of meaningful work is that an individual comes to realize the value of their work. Why does this matter? Because an effective approach to developing meaningful work should can include a self-assessment that matches one's own sense of identity with aspects of real jobs that provide value.

#2 Transcending Personal Satisfaction Meaningful work goes beyond personal satisfaction and often benefits larger communities. It's about making a difference, not just earning a paycheck. Individuals tend to view their work as meaningful in a way that goes beyond their sense of satisfaction. It reflects the apex of the motivation model, equivalent to fulfilling the self-actualization need under Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Studies spanning various professions have demonstrated how individuals who experience meaningful work often discuss how it benefits larger communities.

#3 Characteristic Adaptation Meaningful work means doing something that has a deeper purpose and is important to you. When we talk about "characteristic adaptation," we mean that the goals you have for yourself play a big role in guiding your actions and behaviors. These goals can be divided into two levels: higher goals and lower-level goals.

Higher-level Goals are the big-picture ideas and aspirations that give your life direction. They help you understand what you want to achieve and what is truly important to you. These goals shape the purpose behind your actions and guide you towards meaningful work.

Lower-level Goals are the specific things you do on a day-to-day basis to work towards your higher goals. They are like the steps you take to make progress. These goals are influenced by our natural desires for competence (feeling capable and skilled), power (feeling influential and in control), autonomy (having the freedom to make choices), and relatedness (forming meaningful connections with others). So, when we say that meaningful work is related to characteristic adaptation, we mean that having clear higher goals and aligning your lower-level goals with them can lead to a sense of fulfillment and purpose in the work you do. It's about understanding what truly matters to you and using that knowledge to guide your actions towards a meaningful career or project.

#4 Singular Psychological State Meaningfulness in work is never a permanent or long-lasting experience. It is a temporary perception only felt when one is strongly aware of one's motivations and goals being reflected in work. Respondents reported higher work meaningfulness when they knew they were involved in activities that they perceived as beneficial for others. In other words, when you are awake to the fact that your work aligns with your values and you are having a positive impact on human beings, you are more likely to consider your work meaningful.

#5 Cross-Cultural Comparisons The determinants driving work meaningfulness in third-world countries could differ from those in a developed country; likewise, what defines meaningful work in a collectivist society could differ from an individualistic one. Future research should consider cross-cultural comparisons of meaningful work. So to put it plainly, culture matters, and there is no one-size-fits all when it comes to meaningful work.

#6 Organizational and Social Contexts What is missing is an integrative theoretical framework that places individuals entirely within their job, organizational, and social contexts. The authors suggest that we need an approach that explains how these levels are related to producing meaningful work.

This calls for greater investigation of the categories of antecedents and consequences that remain underexplored, especially at the organizational and societal levels.

#7 Non-Linear Relationships Research has primarily found linear relationships among determinants and outcomes of meaningful work. However, inconsistent results across different studies, even relating to the same constructs, lead to the possibility that these relationships may not be simply linear. This might not be surprising given the fact that nothing seems quite linear at work these days!

#8 Think BIGGER! The meaningfulness of work has become one of the most significant concepts in management research over the last few years, heightened by the abundance of competitive, performance-oriented organizational environments that focus on short-term outcomes instead of more profound impacts.

And we at OpenSourceOD concur! That's why it is critical that we elevate the outcomes of this discussion. Cultivating and helping others find meaningful work is a moral obligation because it not only focuses on humanity, it also improves conditions for humanity by positioning all careers as enablers of the common good.

#9 Broad Applicability Meaningful work applies to various professions, including teachers, social workers, zookeepers, counselors, military personnel, and production workers. This shows that meaningful work is not confined to a specific profession or industry, but is a universal concept that can be applied across different fields. Conversely, researchers at OpenSourceOD have discovered that individuals who are attracted to work that focuses on systematically transforming organizations and society come from a wide variety of vocations.

#10 Positive Outcomes When perceived work meaningfulness increases, employees tend to exert more effort and report greater positive outcomes such as job satisfaction, organizational commitment, and lower turnover intention. The experience of meaningful work triggers other resources, such as psychological capital, that can be conserved and reinvested. Employers should pay attention to these aspects of meaningful work because they can inspire employees to decide their priorities at work and in life, at the same time, what is essential to them at their core, the work cultures that fit them, and the skills they enjoy using. This can lead to increased job satisfaction, organizational commitment, and lower turnover intention, all of which are

Cracking the #MeaningfulWork Code

Now that we've covered the basics behind meaningful work, let's talk about award winning research that demonstrates how you can find, cultivate, and support meaningful work! At OpenSourceOD we refer to this as the M.O.S.T. Meaningful Career Approach (M.O.S.T. stands for Mastering Organizational & Societal Transformation). The MMC approach is a robust, evidence-based based approach that helps individuals and teams improve upon all of the characteristics listed in the study above with the aim of finding an engaging career as an agent of positive change. Here's how it works... instead of treating Organization Development and Change Leadership careers in a one-size-fits-all fashion, our research - which recently won the 2023 OD Network Article of the Year Award - demonstrates that work as an agent of positive change can include as many as 16 distinct pathways!

Your unique pathway, determined by taking the MMC Assessment, is represented in an individually customized report that opens the doors to a world of work that is most meaningful to you. This includes examples of real job descriptions that can help you reverse-engineer your resume by developing competencies you still need, as well as podcasts and books that feed your interests, specialization areas you are most likely to love, and carefully curated assessments, associations, and articles. Here's a synopsis of how the MMC approach satisfies the findings in this study:

1. Resonance

The MMC approach is all about finding what's personally meaningful to you, not just following a general trend. It's designed to match your unique strengths and interests with careers that resonate with your identity and thinking. This aligns with the study's finding that meaningful work is often associated with individual self-realization and is reflected in one's identity and thinking.

2. Selflessness

The MMC Assessment aims to reveal your desired areas of positive change talents and the type of change you hope to influence. It's about making a difference, not just earning a paycheck. This resonates with the study's finding that meaningful work goes beyond personal satisfaction and often benefits larger communities.

3. Integration

The MMC Assessment also measures individual differences regarding desired career outcomes and approaches. It's about aligning your work with your deeper goals and values. This is in line with the study's finding that meaningful work is related to characteristic adaptation, where individuals' higher goals inform the purpose of their behaviors.

4. Mindfulness

The MMC report provides a personalized gateway to career discovery. It's about being aware of what truly motivates you and seeking that in your career. This aligns with the study's finding that meaningfulness in work is a temporary perception only felt when one is strongly aware of one's motivations and goals being reflected in work.

5. Dialogue

The MMC approach is designed to help you tailor your career development plans in personally meaningful ways in a phased and economical trajectory. This aligns with the study's finding that meaningful work is an ongoing exercise that requires constant construction and a dynamic sense-making process. It's about continuously refining your career path to align with your evolving sense of meaning.

6. Evidence

The MMC report is evidence based and provides a personalized gateway to career discovery. This aligns with the study's finding that access to decent and meaningful work is important. It's about finding work that not only pays the bills but also fulfills you on a deeper level. And we've analyzed over 1,000 real jobs to create these connections for change-makers!

7. Empowerment

The MMC approach helps you find careers that match your preference, including leadership roles. This aligns with the study's finding that empowering leadership is associated with meaningful work. It's about finding roles where you can make a difference and inspire others.

8. Wisdom

The MMC approach adopts a framework that merges competency development with meaningful work, similar to the ancient wisdom tradition called Ikigai. This aligns with the study's finding that meaningful work combines what you are good at, what brings you joy, what you believe the world needs, and what you can get paid for. It's about finding work that fulfills you on multiple levels, not just one.

9. Well-being

The MMC approach is designed to help you find work that brings you joy and satisfaction. This aligns with the study's finding that meaningful work is associated with positive psychological states and overall well-being. It's about finding work that not only meets your needs but also brings you happiness and fulfillment.

10. Growth

MMC coaching and workshops are designed to help you grow both personally and professionally. This aligns with the study's finding that meaningful work is associated with personal growth and professional development. It's about finding work that allows you to grow and develop as an individual and a professional.

How you can get Started!

The mission of OpenSourceOD is to ignite the spirit, reach and impact of organizational and societal transformation... so we have made our MMC assessment and report entirely free and accessible to the global public. And unlike most of those other assessments hitting the market, ours is psychometrically tested and verified by university researchers (this information is in your report too!). But that's just the beginning - remember that part about continuously constructing and making sense of meaningful work? That can't be done entirely by reading, listening, and learning new tools. Bringing meaningful work to fruition can be expedited by working with a skilled facilitator who can help you align your core values, beliefs, and the types of change you wish to steward with real jobs, a career development trajectory, strategic anchors, a thought-leadership brand, and a social networking strategy. OpenSourceOD makes this possible through it's one-on-one M.O.S.T. Meaningful Career Coaching program, as well as its new M.O.S.T. Meaningful Leadership Team Workshop, which organizations like the Food & Drug Administration are now using to help their leadership teams develop highly engaged, socially cohesive, and strategically attuned teams in departments like Organizational Effectiveness, Strategic Human Resources, Organization Development (sometimes called Organizational Development), Talent Development, and Executive Leadership Teams. If you are interested in learning more, you can contact me directly at

If you or your team yearn for meaningful work, it's time to stop settling for less and start crafting a life at work that aligns with your deepest values and aspirations! Take our M.O.S.T. Meaningful Career Assessment to learn more. Special Thanks! A special thanks goes out to the researchers who produced this groundbreaking review of 20 years of research on Meaningful Work. The research team includes Kim-Lim Tan, Adriel K.S. Sim, Steffi Sze-Nee Yap, Sanhakot Vithayaporn, and Ani Wahyu Rachmawati. Here is how to cite their article in APA style: Tan, K.-L., Sim, A. K. S., Yap, S. S.-N., Vithayaporn, S., & Rachmawati, A. W. (2023). A systematic review of meaningful work unifying 20 years of theoretical and substantive contributions (2000–2020). Journal of Advances in Management Research.

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