Why most jobs are meaningless

Hiring managers shouldn't try to make roles sound appealing. Instead they need to recruit people who will find meaning in mundane jobs.

by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic
Last Updated: 29 Apr 2016

Although most people want meaningful jobs, the idea that every employee may be able to find meaning at work is as unrealistic as the notion that everybody can have a satisfying, interesting, or well-paid job. However, in recent years organisations have made considerable efforts to make their jobs seem more appealing to the wider workforce. Their assumption is that the promise of meaning will not just attract talented candidates, but also compensate for a job’s inability to fulfil their other psychological needs, such as recognition, financial interests and power. In fact, the premium for meaning is now so high that employees are expected to pay for it by going the extra mile and working as hard as they can. It is a bit like buying a house you can’t really afford, or dating someone who is out of your league – you may be able to get the deal, but it will cost you dearly.

Unfortunately, few jobs are as meaningful as organisations assume, and employee enthusiasm levels tend to decline after a few months on the job. When employee expectations are high, such as when they expect a job to be spiritually and intellectually fulfilling, and to provide them with a sense of purpose, the prospects of being disappointed are strong. Perhaps organisations would be better off if they under-promise and over-deliver, even when it comes to meaning. Furthermore, since organisations benefit when their employees find their jobs meaningful – it raises their engagement and productivity level – they should be happy to pay a premium for individuals who are more likely to find meaning, particularly in mundane jobs.

In line, instead of trying to make jobs more appealing than they are, organisations should do the reverse. For example, a hiring manager or job interviewer may want to describe an opening position as dull and unrewarding, and ask each candidate to explain how precisely they plan to extract meaning or purpose from such a job. In turn, candidates would need to find ways to seem excited about the position, and if they are really good at faking interest they may end up convincing themselves that the job is meaningful, which should predict their ability to find purpose in the actual job later on. Hiring such candidates is a better strategy than hiring individuals who are less capable of self-deception – at least if your goal is to give people meaning.

Dr Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic is an international authority in psychological profiling, people analytics, and talent management. He is the CEO of Hogan Assessments and professor of business psychology at University College London and Columbia University. Follow him on Twitter: @drtcp

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