Manipulating workers desire for meaningful work can alienate employees

When employees view management strategies as self-serving, not genuine or incoherent, they can fall flat.
Office building
Unsplash / 9175 images Pixabay

Strategies to boost staff performance and morale by manipulating our desire for meaningful work often achieve the opposite effect - damaging organisations and alienating employees – according to a new study co-authored by Dr Emma Soane of the Department of Management.

Previous research has shown that important and meaningful work is the single most-valued feature of employment for most of us, bringing a range of benefits for individuals and employers.

This is borne out by the so-called ‘lottery test’, which shows that most people would continue to work after landing a windfall.

Managers have recognised this and employ a range of techniques to harness this natural motivation, such as encouraging us to adopt organisational values, supporting good causes, and linking work to a wider purpose.

The paper, The mismanaged soul: existential labor and the erosion of meaningful work, published in the journal Human Resource Management Review, found that when employees view these strategies as self-serving, not genuine or incoherent then they fall flat and can actually have negative consequences.

Dr Soane and colleagues at Sussex, Greenwich, and Berlin identify two forms of ‘acting’ that employees use when they perceive organisational efforts to manage the meaningfulness of their work.

Surface existential acting is when an employee acts in line with expectations at work even if their true values and beliefs are different.

Deep existential acting, meanwhile, occurs when an employee attempts to alter their own sense of what is meaningful in order to more closely align with their employer.

The paper gives the example of a call centre worker who finds meaning in helping vulnerable or worried customers, yet is expected to handle as many calls as possible in a day.

That person sets out to deliberately change their perception of the situation so that they instead find meaning in helping the maximum number of people in a day, even if that means sacrificing time spent on each one.

Both can cause problems for individuals and organisations, and the researchers say managers and HR professionals should heed these findings.

Behind the article

The mismanaged soul: existential labor and the erosion of meaningful work. Bailey, Katherine, Madden, Adrian, Alfes, Kerstin, Shantz, Amanda and Soane, Emma (2016). Human Resource Management Review . ISSN 1053-4822.