Meaning at work

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“Every living thing acts to develop and preserve itself. Identity is the filter that every organism or system uses to make sense of the world. New information, new relationships, changing environments – all are interpreted through a sense of self. This tendency toward self-creation is so strong that it creates a seeming paradox. An organism will change to maintain its identity.” Margaret Wheatley, A Simpler Way.

I have worked for and work with many organisations. But how do we define ‘an organisation’? It’s a question that has generated many answers.

“A social arrangement for achieving controlled performance in pursuit of collective goals.” (Huczynski & Buchanan, 2007)

“Organization is an attempt to order the intrinsic flux of human action, to channel it toward certain ends, to give it a particular shape, through generalizing and institutionalizing particular meanings and rules.” (Tsoukas & Chia, 2002)

“Organizations are to me, first and foremost, fascinating collections of people.” (Handy, 1999)

“The socially constructed organization is just that: socially constructed. But it is being constructed continuously on a daily, even momentary, basis through individuals interacting with others.” (Campbell, 2000)

Human beings have a strong need for belonging. We are drawn magnetically to others who share our beliefs. Seth Godin’s tribes, Twitter, Facebook – all these current ideas and mechanisms plug into that ancient need. Organisations are just another mechanism. Through work, as through social media, we are constructing meaning through relationships, day in and day out.  We make ourselves visible through the work we do.

People don’t work for a logo, they work for the relationships and the meaning that emerges from those relationships. Usually, people don’t leave a job, they leave a bad manager. The immediate relationships with a boss and within a team are the most powerful. When these relationships are working, there is an unstoppable synergy whereby each individual’s efforts combine to produce something much greater than the sum of the parts. Collaboration in a team which shares a common purpose produces a crackling, fizzing, ooooh-inducing display which lights up the night skies. When these relationships falter, personal meaning fizzles out like a damp firework. Difficult to re-ignite.

The work has to matter. We have to opt to make it matter on a daily basis. If work has lost its meaning for you, then you may need to ask yourself what that says about your identity and what you stand for. All the money, fancy cars, luxurious offices and first class travel may still leave an empty hole in the middle of you. What needs to change for you to snap, crackle and pop again?

 “We encourage you to question yourself at the level of your beliefs. Such personal questioning requires us to go very deeply into our ideas about the world. It often causes us to challenge more than we want to have challenged. But we have found that belief is the place from which true change originates.” (Wheatley)

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