11 Characteristics of Meaningful Work

Managers cannot make work meaningful for employees. Managers, however, can shape the workplace environment to let meaningful work become possible for employees. With a context set to let meaning be experienced, employees can leverage the environment to derive meaning from their work.


Meaningful work is vague. What exactly is it? Assuredly it begins quite selfishly. But this is out of necessity. For work to be meaningful, it is the employee who must label it so. This requires a belief that meaningful work is a desired outcome from managements’ actions. And employees believe managements’ intentions and see actions aimed to let meaning emerge.

For work to be meaningful, it is the employee who must label it so

To explain what meaningful work is, let’s look at its characteristics. In short, however, meaningful work is employees’ perceived positive value of what they are doing. It’s a source of joy in their overall life. In the words of Max Depree, “[it’s] maturing, enriching, and fulfilling, healing, and joyful.”

Basic needs are met

Think Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Employees physiological and safety needs must be met. It’s a base requirement for meaningful work to emerge.

Strengths are leveraged

Don’t confuse strengths with competency. Strengths are what energize you. Employees must experience work that energizes them. Otherwise all work is draining and meaning is absent.

Don’t confuse strengths with competency

Pull personal satisfaction from work

Employees’ perceive their work to be fulfilling.

Being in on things

Employees believe they are trusted with important, inside knowledge. This includes knowing that there is important information but it must be kept confidential from employees for the benefit of the organization.

Treated with respect by peers and managers

This doesn’t say liked, but respected. There is a difference. At its core is employees’ believe they can speak their ideas and be in action to achieve the best possible outcomes.

See how one’s work fits into the bigger picture

Really, what hasn’t been said or written about this. Enough said.

Personal sense of independence and interdependence

Autonomy in completing one’s work has always been important. Collaboration is vital in the 21st century given the internet and globalization. These raise the importance of interdependence in today’s workplaces.

Employees believe they are valued by the organization, by management

To be viewed as a replaceable cog in the proverbial wheel is antiquated management. Organizations thrive or die based on human actions. To that end, meaningful work is marked by the belief that employees are the means to a profitable end.

To be viewed as a replaceable cog in the proverbial wheel is antiquated management

Opportunities to know self

Let’s look back to Max Depree’s words. For work to be meaningful, there must be a maturing nature of work. Such an evolving awareness of the nature of work is best met by an evolving, deepening awareness of one’s self. Coaching, feedback and awareness of one’s place in the universe are vital to make sense of meaningful work. Such opportunities are humbling.

Promotion of other’s satisfaction

Immanuel Kant, philosopher, placed our ability to be concerned for other’s wellbeing and humanity as important to meaningful work. Such a belief places an emphasis on a strong, united team supporting others’ ability to flourish.

Recognized, give recognition for good work

For meaningful work to emerge, employees’ efforts are recognized in manners important to the person. Furthermore, giving recognition is believed to matter, creating a cycle of reciprocity that is genuine.

In today’s workplace, meaningful work is radical. For some managers, to influence a meaningful workplace environment is heretical. This is precisely what our workplaces need.



Change Leader | Speaker | Writer Co-founder and CEO of ExchangeGain. Passionately explores the space where business & humanity intersect. Promoter of workplace optimism. Believes work can be a source of joy. Top ranked leadership blogger by Huffington Post. The Optimistic Workplace (AMACOM) out 2015

  • Al Smith

    You never cease to amaze, my friend. Another great piece. I read CARE in so many of your posts. Thanks for all you do to influence and inspire.

  • Paul Jolicoeur

    Thanks Shawn, we all want to work towards something that is meaningful. What a waste of our lives to trade time for money! Everyone wants to know they are making a difference and I think you captured that here.

  • LitSuppGuru

    Excellent compilation, Shawn. I love reading stories about companies with management who get this. Most employee’s needs are basic, but even those basic things are overlooked when it doesn’t need to be that way. It’s so simple to “start with the employee’s point of view”. Of course sometimes the wrong people are in management.

  • Lisa Shelley

    Love this Shawn! Particularly love that you highlight the employee’s responsibility as a part of the equation. Ultimately it is the employee that chooses to find meaning and engage… the manager’s role is to provide the environment to facilitate and support that engagement. Great list, thanks for sharing!

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  • Scott Mabry

    Great list Shawn. Some elements here that I think have often been left our of these types of lists. Particularly the opportunity to know self. I’ll share this one with the team. Thank you.

  • JudyMartin

    Wonderful message and insight. This topic is so energizing for the workforce in general. One of the great 13th century theologians Thomas Aquinas once said, “To live well is to work well.” So simple, yet in our complex times – so difficult to get our mindset back to basics – like dignity at work amongst the rank and file – along with c-suite.

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  • Maria Garcia

    Absolutely love this post Shawn, great list you have gather here! Opportunity to know self, what a concept but a very powerful one very much overlooked in today workforce, but one that is most needed. The way we look at workplace has radically changed, people are not just looking at a place to work and bring money home, people are interested in making a difference at their workplace,they are looking at bringing their best persona to work, they are looking for their continuous development in all areas of their lives, they want to have a strong relationships with their superiors and team mates if we don’t provide that kind of environment we are missing out on something big. I believe you have just nailed a list of what it takes to have that kind of environment!.
    As always thank you for your wonderful post, you are an awesome person, thank you for your insights
    Maria Garcia

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