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Would you Take Less Money for More Meaningful Work? 9 out of 10 say Yes

4 min read

I once attended a meeting of professionals in my field where we were asked to introduce ourselves by giving our name and a brief description of our job. One member of the group gave his name and then described his work saying: “In the morning I beat my head against the wall. In the afternoon I rub my head.”

The group chuckled, as you might expect. But if you’ve ever had a job like that, you know it isn’t funny.

Some Nazi prison guards made their captives spend all day digging a hole, and the next day filling it in. In other cases, prisoners were forced to build a wall, only to be instructed the following day to knock it down. Mindless work can be a form of torture.

The Monetary Value of Meaningful Work

A 2017 survey by BetterUP Labs found more than 9 out of 10 employees are willing to trade a percentage of their lifetime earnings for meaning at work. It turns out workers are willing to pay for meaning at work, and employers save money by providing it.

Here’s a few of the high-level findings of this research, along with some of my observations.

On average, employees say their work is about half as meaningful as it could be.

Work becomes meaningful when members of your team can connect the dots between everything they do and the big picture mission of the organization. This is even more true when the mission explicitly contributes to the common good by adding value to others.

If you have direct reports, it is your responsibility to regularly connect the dots for your team, explaining how even their most mundane tasks become a link in the value-chain that makes the mission possible.

Employees whose work feels meaningful work longer weeks and are absent less.

According to the BetterUp report, meaningful work motivates employees to work an hour extra per week, and to take two fewer days of paid leave per year.

In the inevitable cycles where you need your team to step up, stay late and give extra effort to meet a deadline, meaningful work beats a motivational speech every time.

Employees are willing to trade money for meaning at work.

In the survey BetterUp asked over 2,000 American professionals this question:

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?

The answer? On average, the respondents said, “they’d be willing to forego 23% of their entire future lifetime earnings in order to have a job that was always meaningful.” To put this in perspective, it is an amount slightly above the average of what we spend on housing (21%).

This number was constant across salary groups, age and seniority. Meaningful work might be the most meaningful raise you could give your team members.

Employees who find meaningful work are happier, more productive, and harder working.

Job satisfaction is directly related to worker productivity. The business case for helping your team deepen their engagement through meaningful work is clear. This is more than soft skill training or corporate altruism. Everyone wins when team members spend their afternoons doing something more rewarding than “rubbing their heads.”

Helping Your Team Find Meaning at Work

It is not surprising that the BetterUp study concludes there is no single source of workplace meaning. The top three sources of meaning in their research caught my attention.

Personal Growth — The feeling that work is actively contributing to the development of one’s “inner self.”

Professional Growth — The ability to activate one’s full potential.

Shared Purpose — A collective sense, shared with colleagues and leadership, of working toward a common purpose.

These three sources of workplace meaning are at the heart of developmental leadership.

You become a developmental leader when the people who report to you believe their development as a person is as important to you as their performance for the organization.

Leaders reinforce their developmental bias by actively partnering with team members in the shared purpose of personal and professional growth.

The Identity Profile Self-Awareness Tool (IPSAT) is uniquely designed to set the stage for developmental conversations. By engaging their Identity Profile, team members explore who they are, what they do best, and where they have gaps for the purpose of disclosure that invites feedback.

A diagram from the the IPSAT The Mutuality of Meaning-making

We call this the mutuality of meaning-making. If you would like to learn more about how the Identity Profile Self-Awareness Tool (IPAT) can help you create a developmental culture and contribute to the goal of meaningful work, visit

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