Would You Take Less Money for More Meaningful Work?

Authors: Shawn Achor, Andrew Reece, Gabriella Rosen Kellerman, and Alexi Robichaux Source: Harvard Business Review

In his introduction to Working, the landmark 1974 oral history of work, Studs Terkel positioned meaning as an equal counterpart to financial compensation in motivating the American worker. “[Work] is about a search…for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor,” he wrote. Among those “happy few” he met who truly enjoyed their labors, Terkel noted a common attribute: They had “a meaning to their work over and beyond the reward of the paycheck.”

More than forty years later, myriad studies have substantiated the claim that American workers expect something deeper than a paycheck in return for their labors. Current compensation levels show only a marginal relationship with job satisfaction. By contrast, since 2005, the importance of meaningfulness in driving job selection has grown steadily. “Meaning is the new money, an HBR article argued in 2011. Why, then, haven’t more organizations taken concrete actions to focus their cultures on the creation of meaning?

To date, business leaders have lacked two key pieces of information they need in order to act on the finding that meaning drives productivity. First, any business case hinges on the ability to translate meaning, as an abstraction, into dollars. Just how much is meaningful work actually worth? How much of an investment in this area is justified by the promised returns? And second: How can organizations actually go about fostering meaning?

We set out to answer these questions at BetterUp this past year, as a follow-up to our study on loneliness at work. Our Meaning and Purpose at Work report, released today, surveyed the experience of workplace meaning among 2,285 American professionals, across 26 industries and a range of pay levels, company sizes, and demographics. The height of the price tag that workers place on meaning surprised us all.

The Dollars (and Sense) of Meaningful Work

Our first goal was to understand how widely held the belief is that meaningful work is of monetary value. More than 9 out of 10 employees, we found, are willing to trade a percentage of their lifetime earnings for greater meaning at work. Across age and salary groups, workers want meaningful work badly enough that they’re willing to pay for it.

The trillion dollar question, then, was just how much is meaning worth to the individual employee? If you could find a job that offered you consistent meaning, how much of your current salary would you be willing to forego to do it? We asked this of our 2,000+ respondents. On average, our pool of American workers said they’d be willing to forego 23% of their entire future lifetime earnings in order to have a job that was always meaningful. The magnitude of this number supports one of the findings from Shawn’s recent study on the Conference for Women. In a survey of attendees, he found that nearly 80% of the respondents would rather have a boss who cared about them finding meaning and success in work than receive a 20% pay increase. To put this figure in perspective, consider that Americans spend about 21% of their incomes on housing. Given that people are willing to spend more on meaningful work than on putting a roof over their heads, the 21st century list of essentials might be due for an update: “food, clothing, shelter — and meaningful work.”

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