Don’t get me wrong: of course, women are also searching for meaning at work. The title of this article is derived from the famous book „Man’s search for meaning“ written by Viktor E. Frankl, the Viennese psychiatrist. Both, as a physician and philosopher, he was focused on two questions all over his entire life: What keeps people healthy despite indescribable burden and suffering? And: What is specifically human? In other words: What makes humans human?

As a comprehensive answer to these existentially important questions, he developed a concept of man, which is based on three pillars:

  • The freedom of will – human beings are not determined by drives or instincts, like animals. We are capable of influencing our attitude and therefore we are able to decide how we respond to our surrounding conditions.
  • The will to meaning – Frankl recognized and proved that the striving for meaning is the primary motivational force in human beings. This motivation concept was eventually acknowledged and confirmed by Abraham Maslow in a paper written in 1966. He amended his hierarchy of needs on top of “self-actualization” with “transcendence”.
  • The meaning of life – Frankl was imperturbably convinced that life has a meaning for each and every person in each and every situation. However, this meaning of life cannot be revealed by asking or searching, but responding: Life is asking questions and we have to answer, to respond and thus take responsibility for our life.

This concept turned out to be not only applicable in case of disease, suffering, stroke of fate, but in each and every situation of our life. And of course, this is also applicable and valid for our working life. Isn´t it particularly true that we have to face unchangeable conditions at work? And would it be meaningful to fight against them or just give up in a fatalistic way? Responsibility is an essential and existential aspect of human life according to Frankl´s concept. In working life, the responsibility for meaning is shared between corporate management, line managers and each employee.

The corporate management is requested to establish a meaningful business model enabling employees to be proud of the company and to recognize their personal contribution to customer satisfaction. A business model which is fooling customers, exhausting suppliers or polluting the environment is not recognized as meaningful by employees. Being forced to contribute to such a business practise is literally pathogenic.

Besides corporate management, also the line management is requested to implement and execute the enterprise philosophy. Line managers serve as role models and have to create conditions that enable employees to recognise and execute their personal contribution to the corporate success. Thus, line managers can find a respectful and motivating interaction with their direct reports even under challenging conditions and even if the corporate management makes meaningless decisions. They can – despite any disturbing business development – find a meaningful attitude and a meaningful interaction with employees.

And last but not least, also employees themselves have some freedom of design for their working life and therefore the final responsibility for the realization of meaning at work. Frankl pointed out that personal meaning can neither be forced nor directed. Meaning of life as well as meaning at work can only be individually found, recognized and realized.

Both corporate and line management are responsible to picture and explain the meaning of the enterprise and make sure that qualified people are able to contribute to the company’s success. However, the final responsibility is at the employees to execute and realize the possibilities of meaning in their work life. Thus, each and every employee has a remaining scope of design, even under difficult conditions.

Why is meaning orientation so valuable and important at work? 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 an effective crisis intervention. Meaning-orientation and meaning actualization will not only motivate and guide younger employees of the so-called “generation Y”. According to Frankl and Maslow, self-actualization can be most effectively and satisfactory realized by finding a personal, meaningful contribution to the “big picture”. Additionally, it helps older workers to recognize and realize their personal contribution to the company’s success as well as to the working atmosphere until the very last day before retirement and even after retirement.

The importance and impact of meaning at work can be emphasised by a convincing quote of Viktor Frankl: “There is nothing in the world that so enables a human being to cope with external difficulties or internal discomfort, as the awareness of having a task in life.”

Trainer & Consultant

Dr. Harald Pichler

Harald has a PhD in Biochemistry at Vienna University of Technology and more than 15 years in management positions. Over 20 years application of Viktor Frankl’s meaning concept in leadership and work life and 3 years education in Logotherapy at Viktor Frankl Zentrum Vienna.