A 180-years-old technology is currently rocking the automotive industry. The electric engine will literally move us to the future. In a similar way, a more than 80-years-old powerful concept of motivation and resilience is rediscovered for business and leadership.
Cost reduction, pressure of time, market competition, customer requirements – despite such burdens a leader shall remain effective and motivate employees to peak performance. At the same time employees should stay healthy and productive until old age. How can one incorporate humanity and sustainability into management and be a confident and performance-oriented leader at the same time? The Viennese psychiatrist Viktor E. Frankl has shown that even in challenging situations a personal meaning can be found and actualized. Despite difficult conditions, meaning can provide orientation and self-motivation. An executive should therefore know the importance of meaningful work for motivation and performance, and be able to point out practical ways to find meaning in the job.
Pursuit of happiness is impossible
What makes meaningful work so important? Viktor Frankl has shown that human beings have an existential need for meaning, which is much stronger than the need for money, power, influence or self-fulfillment. When the meaning of an assignment is recognized, difficult conditions can be mastered more easily. Frankl went a step further and said provocatively: Pursuit of happiness is impossible. We should not strive just for happiness, because we need a reason to be happy. Happiness, joy or contentment are not feasible as direct goals, but are the results of meaningfulness. This not only applies in private life, but also in the job. For both executives and employees.
Frankl drew attention to the connection between the actualization of personal meaning and effects on health already 80 years ago. Today he is repeatedly confirmed by a number of scientific studies. The German health insurance fund AOK has dedicated a 600-page study report to the importance of meaning at work, and Viktor Frankl is cited on the first page (AOK Fehlzeitenreport 2018).
Main roads to meaning at work
How can meaning at work be discovered and actualized? Only individually by each person herself and differently, depending on specific situations and conditions. Therefore, meaning cannot be given or directed by management. It can only be individually identified and realized. However, leaders should know about the number of pathways leading to meaningful work. Not to force employees to meaning but to establish framework conditions enabling meaningful work. And these are the main roads to meaning, suggested by Frankl: First of all, a meaningful personal assignment which is related to questions as “What are my talents? What is my personal contribution? What is the effect of my work?” Second: Positive emotions and experiences play an important role for meaning at work.
We tend to take benefits as granted and are focusing on the negative aspects of our work. But we have to train our ability to acknowledge the positive aspects and our gratefulness in order to experience meaning at work.
Furthermore, collaboration and relationships have a huge impact on whether the work is experienced as meaningful or not. At this point I like to emphasize the impact of each and every employee on the working atmosphere.
Workplace health promotion and burnout prevention is not only the responsibility of the management. A single employee can affect the health of colleagues by communication and interaction.
Life is asking – we have to answer
Even if one can neither find meaning in the assignment itself nor in positive aspects of the work, nor in social interactions, there remains a final possibility to realize personal meaning. This makes Frankl´s concept of meaning so robust and reliable, despite adverse and troublesome conditions. Although we might not be able to change the surrounding conditions, we can still influence our attitude, our position, our mind-set. Instead of asking ourselves “why me?” we should ask ourselves “what for?”. Or we should stop asking and start answering. As Frankl proposed by his words: “Life is asking questions, and we have to respond – and thus take responsibility for our own life.” By modifying my attitude, I can even find a personal meaning in situations where nothing else can be shaped anymore.
The strive for meaning – in life and at work – is an impressive intrinsic motivation force, outshining all extrinsic benefits. Furthermore, realization of meaning at work is an effective prevention from physical and psychogenic workplace diseases as well as a robust crisis prevention. According to both Viktor Frankl and Abraham Maslow, self-actualization can be most effectively and satisfactory realized by finding a personal, meaningful contribution to the “big picture”. A meaning-oriented leader is aware of the importance of meaning at work and therefore creates a work environment in which the team can recognize their personal contribution and its impact. Managers should not try to give or enforce meaning but enable meaningful work. The ultimate responsibility for meaningful work then lies with the employees themselves.
Speaker, trainer and consultant for Meaning at Work.
Dr. Harald Pichler
Harald Pichler has more than 15 years in management positions. He has over 20 years application of Viktor Frankl’s meaning concept in leadership and work life. 3 years education in Logotherapy at Viktor Frankl Zentrum Vienna.