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Episode 7: Creating Meaning at Work (transcript)

Allison:                               My work in the nonprofit civil rights space was more than just a job.

Sonia Kang:                       Allison had the perfect job.

Allison:                               I would love to think my values come from a deep place of personal commitment to those who just have not gotten a fair shake in life.

Sonia Kang:                       One that provided her with meaning and purpose, but also long hours.

Allison:                               [00:00:30] So it was always stressful and it was always intense, but for those reasons exactly, I loved it. I remember telling my parents that there was no way in hell I was ever going to work a nine to five, or sit in a cubicle, or answer emails all day and call that a fulfilling career choice.

Sonia Kang:                       Just before the 2016 election, Allison was working within the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU, but then [00:01:00] something happened.

Allison:                               I found out that I had a job offer with one of the largest corporations in the world, and it was the very same day I found out that I was pregnant.

Sonia Kang:                       All of a sudden, Allison had to make a painful decision.

Allison:                               I was very conflicted about the idea of leaving a mission-based nonprofit that I was very passionate about.

Sonia Kang:                       A life of purpose, but with 80-hour work weeks and tough to [00:01:30] do with a new baby. Or the salary, security, and manageable hours that come with a corporate job at a profits-driven firm. What would you do?

                                             This is For the Love of Work, an original podcast about the employee experience, made possible by Rogers. My name is Sonia Kang. I’m a professor of organizational behavior, and I study the psychology of people at work. In this episode, we explore how you can find [00:02:00] meaning and express your values at work.

Allison:                               I had it, more than a healthy dose of skepticism as I walked into the first day of work on Park Avenue in Manhattan at a very large financial institution. I was convinced [00:02:30] that I would hate it and leave.

Sonia Kang:                       Yeah. In the end, Allison left the career that held so much meaning for her.

Allison:                               I was absolutely an emotional mess for a while after making the decision to leave nonprofit.

Sonia Kang:                       And while the decision made sense for her everyday family life, she was worried about being able to find a similar sense of meaning in her new job.

Allison:                               I had this very dystopian view of what a big corporate headquarters looked [00:03:00] like and the people in it, how they acted, looking to get the little guy in order to squeeze profits.

Sonia Kang:                       Pretty big disconnect here between the values of a nonprofit and the values of a financial firm, not a transition everyone experiences. But how we find meaning and how we can express or live our values at work is a pretty common issue. More and more, we care a lot about how work makes us feel and more and more, most of us want to know [00:03:30] that where we work, the company we work for, has values that are aligned with our own. So let’s figure out what finding meaning and expressing our values look like at work.

                                             By training, I’m a social psychologist. I know a bit about meaning and values, but to dig deeper, we really need to talk to a personality psychologist. Lucky for us, I just happen to live with one.

Jacob Hirsh:                      Hi. My name is Jacob Hirsh and I’m a professor of organizational behavior at the University of Toronto, [00:04:00] and I study personality psychology. I’m also your husband.

Sonia Kang:                       So what does it mean exactly to find meaning in our jobs?

Jacob Hirsh:                      Well, experiencing meaning in the work context means that we find value in our activities. The sense of meaning happens when we feel close to these values, when we feel that we are enacting them and somehow making progress towards the realization of these values.

Sonia Kang:                       So meaning is connected to living and working in line with our values.

Jacob Hirsh:                      [00:04:30] It’s kind of an authentic sort of feeling. When you’re in a situation where you don’t really find a sense of value in your job, the first step you want to engage in is think, what are your values to begin with? Because it might be the problem that you just don’t know what your values are. Many people don’t find value in work, but they also don’t find value or meaning in the rest of their life either.

Sonia Kang:                       We’re going to hear more about meaning from Jacob later in the show, but first let’s talk about values.

                                             The easiest way to define values [00:05:00] is by thinking about what’s most important to you in life. We’re happy when we’re acting in line with our values and very unhappy when we’re unable to do so. Values are also linked to goals that motivate action and they’re relevant across different situations.

                                             The interesting thing about the work context is that you come in there as a person with your own values, but at the same time, the company where you’re working also has a set of values. The challenge is figuring out how to bring these two sets of values [00:05:30] into alignment. So let’s start with you, what are your values?

Julie Lee:                            I think most people don’t… They’re not consciously aware of what their values are.

Sonia Kang:                       Julie Lee is Co-Director of the Center of Human and Cultural Values at Western Australia Business School. Her research focuses on how values develop and how they associate with each other.

Julie Lee:                            We might think, “Oh, I value my family. I value having a job”, but these are really [00:06:00] specific, tangible things. What we’ve got to think about is what motivates our actions, what are our goals in life? If you understand what your own values are, then you’ll know how to make better decisions.

Sonia Kang:                       Knowing your values can help you make better decisions in any aspect of life, but let’s look at work for a moment. Let’s say you have two job opportunities.

Julie Lee:                            And one job had a lot of really good things about it in terms of security and another [00:06:30] job offered you amazing opportunities to do really creative and interesting things, but maybe not as much security. If you know what your values are, you might know which one of those is really the right thing for you. If you don’t know what your values are, you might be guided by other people’s advice, and they might say, “Well, why don’t you take the really secure job because then you’ll never have to worry again?” But for you, you’re really motivated to seek creativity and innovation, [00:07:00] and you would be really unhappy in the job that offers the security, rather than the ability to be creative and innovative.

Sonia Kang:                       Each of us has a bunch of different values that we use to help us figure out what’s worth doing and what we should avoid. But just because a given value is really important to me, it doesn’t mean that it’s important to you.

                                             To help you figure out what your values are, Julie and her colleagues have created something called the Values Project. [00:07:30] It’s a huge research project, and it includes a free online survey at that you can take to help you discover your dominant values, ones that are most important to you across all aspects of life, family, social life, and work. I went online and took the test, and it asks you to rank a set of 10 values against each other over and over to get a sense of which values are most and least important to you.

Sharon Arieli:                    Power, achievement, [inaudible 00:07:58], stimulation, [00:08:00] self-direction, universalism, benevolence, tradition, conformity, and security, and each one of these value types represents a different goal.

Sonia Kang:                       Sharon Arieli is a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Like Julie, she’s worked with an academic named Shalom Schwartz, who has done groundbreaking work on human values. He’s the one who came up with these 10 values.

                                             So my dominant [00:08:30] values are achievement, benevolence, and security. The test told me that people like me want to have safety and stability for themselves in society, that’s the security part. They want to be ambitious and successful in life, that’s the achievement part. And they also want to be kind to people they’re in frequent contact with, that’s the benevolence part. But knowing your values isn’t enough.

Sharon Arieli:                    It is not enough to know your values. So for example, let’s take COVID-19. So for me, autonomy [00:09:00] is very important, but I couldn’t attain my autonomy when we had lockdown. I couldn’t find meaning because I couldn’t find a way to attain autonomy, but I will find other ways to attain my autonomy. This is also an option. So maybe I cannot do it in my body, but I can do it with my spirit and I will find other routes to attain autonomy.

Sonia Kang:                       In order to find meaning in life, whether it’s at work or elsewhere, you have to act in some way [00:09:30] in line with your values. What’s interesting, in Sharon’s COVID-19 example though, is that it’s possible to act on your values even in situations that aren’t optimal.

                                             Beyond making decisions and pursuing meaning, Julie Lee says being aware of our values and the values of those around us can help in our relationships.

Julie Lee:                            Maybe there’s someone you don’t get along with at work or that you think they’re not doing the right thing, it might be based on their values. I remember when I first [00:10:00] had a job, and it was really normative in that job for people to stay at work till six or seven o’clock at night and there were some people that were going home at three o’clock to pick up their children from school, and people were saying, “Oh, those people are not doing the right thing by the organization. They’re not committed to the organization”, but actually their values differed a lot. So the people that were saying that valued things like power and achievement and people who were [00:10:30] going home to pick up their children from school valued things like benevolence, the welfare of close others.

Sonia Kang:                       Neither value is wrong. They just lead to different actions in this context. But if you’re only judging people by their actions and not taking into consideration why they’re acting the way they are, you miss out on an opportunity to truly understand them.

Sharon Arieli:                    I think it’s really important to understand that people have different values. Those values are right for [00:11:00] them, and you can better predict what they’re going to do next if you understand what their values are.

Sonia Kang:                       By making an effort to understand other people’s values, you can also figure out who around you is more or less compatible with you.

                                             Julie’s Values Project survey doesn’t just help you to understand your most important values, it also helps you understand your associated or related values. So my top values were achievement, benevolence and security, and my associated values were self-direction, [00:11:30] societal universalism, and stimulation. Knowing the relative importance of your values can also provide context to some of the decisions you make. For example, we can safely assume that for Allison, the nonprofit worker, her main value was societal universalism, wanting equality and welfare for everyone.

Allison:                               In the moment, it felt like a selfish act to move from nonprofit to corporate, and in many ways it was. It was a focus on family, [00:12:00] and my family, rather than necessarily the mission of helping other families on the front lines of civil rights.

Sonia Kang:                       Well, one value associated with family is benevolence. Benevolence and societal universalism are closely linked. So while changing jobs might’ve felt like a conflict for Allison, the values themselves weren’t in conflict.

                                             So this is one way to define your values, use them to make decisions and better understand your relationships. [00:12:30] By doing so, you might achieve a deeper level of meaning in all areas of your life. But when it comes to work and the company you work for, remember organizations also have values, stated or otherwise. And like Julie’s recommendation to know other people’s values, you might also want to better understand a company’s values if you’re working for them or thinking of working for them.

Dave Mayer:                     Companies talk about their values [00:13:00] a lot, so they usually involve things like dignity, and respect, fairness, sometimes they’ll relate to how you treat customers or employees or various stakeholders. And so the issue is that if we don’t have some type of value statement, and really a hierarchy of values, when things are in conflict, when there’s a challenge, then we don’t know what to do.

Sonia Kang:                       This is Dave Mayer. He’s a professor at the Ross [00:13:30] School of Business at the University of Michigan. He’s talking about how companies will often create public-facing or employee-facing value statements about what they stand for and how they should behave.

Dave Mayer:                     If anyone were to read them, it would be hard to find faults in any of the statements. The real issue is, how are those actually embedded in the day-to-day work?

Sonia Kang:                       This is the distinction between espoused and enacted values. Espoused values are values that organizations [00:14:00] express publicly. They’re the desired ideal. Enacted values are the reality. They’re the values that are actually exhibited on a day-to-day basis by the organization and its employees. When there’s a good match between the espoused and enacted values, this is called value congruence. The same goes for social impact.

Dave Mayer:                     You can think about it as a behavior by an organization that focuses on societal wellbeing [00:14:30] beyond just financial performance and making sure that you’re adhering to the laws. An example might be a company’s effect on the natural environment, you can easily follow the laws and still do things that contribute to global warming.

Sonia Kang:                       This is something that people are increasingly focused on within the employee experience. They want to know that the company they work for is actually doing good in the world, not just talking about it. [00:15:00] This became especially true partway through 2020 when massive protests broke out against systemic racism in solidarity with Black Lives Matter. Corporate response to the issue was examined closely because most companies have a diversity statement and publicly advertise their commitment to it, but don’t necessarily have black, indigenous, or people of color, or women, or members of other traditionally marginalized groups in [00:15:30] senior leadership positions. This is the distinction between diversity, getting different people through the door, and inclusion, making those people feel like they belong and want to stick around.

                                             This is something we took a full look at in Episode Two — the distinction between diversity – getting different people through the door – and inclusion – making those people feel like they belong and want to stick around. If your espoused values aren’t enacted in the day-to-day experiences that people have at work, you’re going to lose that diversity very quickly. People will leave for a company that actually walks the walk, not just talks a big game. It’s these kinds of enacted values, employees or [00:16:00] candidates need to assess.

Dave Mayer:                     What are the percentages of women and minorities in top management positions or on a board? Do leaders emphasize values when they’re making decisions at work? Can you be someone at the company who is a total jerk and not a great person and still advance in the company? That’s a really, I think probably, the strongest signal of what the company actually values.

Sonia Kang:                       And then there’s the way a company behaves under pressure.

Dave Mayer:                     [00:16:30] I think COVID has and will impact corporate values. What happens in a crisis, that’s when you really see if a company has values and is really going to actually stick to those values.

Sonia Kang:                       COVID-19 was, and still is, a major test of corporate values. If a company’s espoused values and purpose aren’t enacted in their behavior during a crisis, then it’s time for them to reconsider their values and purpose.

Dave Mayer:                     Companies [00:17:00] that have said, we put our employees first, and then are doing layoffs, that’s going to be really problematic. I think we also are likely to see that people who felt taken care of by their organization during this time are going to have a lot more loyalty.

Sonia Kang:                       When Dave talks about a company having its own values, the question becomes, well, who’s deciding those values? When it’s your values or mine, they’re developed through a combination [00:17:30] of many different influences, our upbringing, our experiences, our peer groups, our education. And those values can change over time, especially as we age, but they evolve within us alone. A company, on the other hand, is composed of many different people.

Julie Lee:                            In a workplace, many times, it’s the leadership that sits down and thinks about what the values of the organization are, and the leadership in an organization [00:18:00] often has very different value profiles to the workers within that organization. So there is a danger of disconnect in doing it that way.

Sonia Kang:                       That’s Julie Lee again. Some experts say that value statements aside, a company’s actual values are the collective values of its employees. It kind of makes sense, the employees carry out the company’s duties and they act according to their own different values. This has led some companies to rethink how they determine their values.

Sara:                                    [00:18:30] We found that if employees did participate or did have a way to share feedback on company values, they were much more likely to stand up for them and to live them every day. So my company decided to crowdsource its set of values.

Sonia Kang:                       Sara Howe works on the culture team at Rogers. With a recent change in leadership, and corporate direction, they decided to refresh their values. So they created [00:19:00] an internal platform where all thirty thousand employees were invited to answer these three questions.

Sara:                                    When our company is at its best, what are the values we live the most? What values are most important to you personally? And when you think of all the great things we do across our company, what’s the most meaningful thing we bring to the lives of our customers? The response was overwhelming. We had over 13,000 people engaging in the site, we had over 3,500 ideas shared.

Sonia Kang:                       [00:19:30] Those ideas were whittled down to the most common values, ones related to community, innovation, integrity, and teamwork. The results were quickly and openly shared back to employees.

Sara:                                    As we shared out the values, it was really remarkable how many people said, “That’s what I said. I see myself. That’s what’s most important to me.”

Sonia Kang:                       By serving employees and drilling down into the results, Sarah’s team was able to reflect a set of shared values that most people [00:20:00] could get behind. And there’s research that shows having shared values that are enacted every day are a key driver of high performance and engagement.

                                             So going forward, when hiring new employees, what about just find some that all share the same values? That’s what we asked, Julie Lee.

Julie Lee:                            I think that’s a really interesting but probably difficult thing to do. Within an organization, we need people with all of these different [00:20:30] values to make it fit together sort of as a small society.

Sonia Kang:                       While we might agree on a set of shared values, as the employees at Sarah’s company did, the personal values of a broader population of employees will differ.

Julie Lee:                            So within an organization, there’s a of different jobs in which people can express their values in different ways. So for instance, if you go into the bookkeeping part of an organization, you might have more conservative values, what [00:21:00] we call conservation values. If you’re in marketing, part of an organization, you might have a different set of values, which are more open to change and creative.

Sonia Kang:                       When Allison moved from the nonprofit organization to the financial firm, she wasn’t feeling this mix of values.

Allison:                               I can’t lie and say I immediately found total fulfillment in the work that I was doing. It’s very true [00:21:30] that the actual work was not lifesaving.

Sonia Kang:                       This was highlighted when Allison got a visit from her former colleagues.

Allison:                               There were times when I was working within the walls of a corporation and there were protesters outside protesting a policy or behavior from the company, and the protesters were friends of mine, people I used to work with.

Sonia Kang:                       People from her old company, [00:22:00] the nonprofit, had come to protest Allison’s new company.

Allison:                               So did that create mixed emotions for me? For sure. Also, the one thing I learned is that you’re not required to be a robot working inside corporate America. You’re allowed to have opinions and you’re allowed to have a voice, and I absolutely took advantage of those things. I had no qualms speaking up and saying, “Actually, I agree with the guys outside and here is [00:22:30] why” and grabbing the ear of an executive when I could and asking, “Why do we have this policy? Don’t we understand it’s hurting some of the very same people that we serve and that we claim to care about?” So I don’t think that those two things are at odds with each other necessarily.

Sonia Kang:                       And even though the entire company’s workforce might not have shared Allison’s personal values, she was able to find some compatibility around her because people who end up in the same job will often have similar values.

Allison:                               I was able to find, [00:23:00] on a small team within a very large company, a real sense of camaraderie and friendship with people. I was very pleasantly surprised and then increasingly blown away by just how caring, diverse, and intelligent the people around me were. I felt here were a bunch of people who were just like me.

Sonia Kang:                       Allison was lucky, but Julie Lee says there’s a limit to incompatible values.

Julie Lee:                            If you end up [00:23:30] in a job where you really can’t express your values very well, we believe that that has negative consequences in terms of wellbeing.

Sonia Kang:                       For many people, misalignment of values can be reason to leave a job, but some people don’t necessarily have that luxury for a bunch of different reasons. The good news for them is this.

Sharon Arieli:                    One of the strategies is, “Okay, I cannot attain my most important values at work, but maybe [00:24:00] I can attain my important values at other domains in life. Maybe I cannot express autonomy at work, but I can be very autonomous in choosing my hobbies or in choosing my friends or choosing other social events I want to attend.”

Sonia Kang:                       This is Sharon Arieli again. The professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Sharon Arieli:                    I don’t think we have different sets of values for work and for personal life. I think that if something is important to us, [00:24:30] so it is trans situational.

Sonia Kang:                       Our values remain the same with a little bit of variance across all aspects of our lives. So even if work isn’t the primary expression of our values, our lives can still have meaning if we pursue our values elsewhere. This brings us back to meaning, what are the different ways we can find it at work and in our lives?

Jacob Hirsh:                      I think one of the reasons why the meaningful work issue has become so important is because everyone is lacking [00:25:00] a sense of meaning in their lives.

Sonia Kang:                       Jacob Hirsh, the personality psychologist I live with, studies meaning.

Jacob Hirsh:                      We do not have the same kind of institutions that we used to, to promote this sense of shared identity, shared belongings, shared narratives of who we are and what we’re doing, so we’re all searching for meaning in different ways.

Sonia Kang:                       Because of this de-emphasis on other institutions like religious affiliation and community membership, people are looking to work for more meaning. Jacob recently did a study that found that people would take a 17% salary [00:25:30] cut to move into a job that they considered more meaningful. That’s a lot of money.

Jacob Hirsh:                      The money you get is one small piece, sometimes a large piece, but it’s one piece of the overall compensation from a psychological perspective. The other values we get from our work, things like a sense of identity, a sense of belonging within a community and the relationships that we build, a sense of interest and engagement with complex challenges, all of these satisfy our psychological needs without any kind of extrinsic compensation.

Sonia Kang:                       [00:26:00] But work, compared to other institutions, traditionally hasn’t offered the same prosocial opportunities.

Jacob Hirsh:                      I think it’s about, 80% of workers worldwide are disengaged from their jobs, so people don’t feel meaning. By and large organizations, managers, leaders are doing a not very good job at getting people engaged and promoting and cultivating the sense of meaning, even though it has so many positive benefits.

Sonia Kang:                       This is something that progressive companies are pursuing in the employee experience.

Jacob Hirsh:                      It [00:26:30] shouldn’t all be up to the individual to try to find a sense of meaning at work. We know that good leaders can really inspire people into a shared and valued narrative. That’s what really great leaders do is that they get everyone into this shared sense of meaning that is connected with his collective values.

Sonia Kang:                       But isn’t just the organizations. It’s also our own attitudes.

Jacob Hirsh:                      Meaning is often portrayed in popular culture as this sort of thing you have to disconnect from everything in pursuit of. That’s not how it has to be. Meaning can be just enjoying [00:27:00] a simple task in your work life, simple relationships in your work life and trying to build it moment by moment.

                                             In our sample, for example, we had people who were delivery truck drivers, and they had this sense of meaning for, “Well, I’m delivering these packages to people. I’m brightening people’s days by giving them all these things that they wanted, and they feel happy about that.” That idea, that notion of helping out transformed what some might look at as a very mundane and sort of menial job without opportunities for creative self-expression, [00:27:30] but they were framing the situation as an opportunity to do good. And in framing it in relation to their values, that’s really where the sense of meaning comes from.

Sonia Kang:                       This was reflected during COVID-19 when delivery drivers became essential workers for those in social isolation.

                                             Back at the financial firm, Allison was able to redefine her tasks in ways that aligned with her values.

Allison:                               I quickly found that as long [00:28:00] as I was doing work that was meaningful to me, the things that I love doing, writing and storytelling and finding interesting people and pulling their stories out and helping to share them, that I could find meaning in the actual work that I was doing. I found a corner of space within these large sort of profit-driven entities that were oriented more towards being inclusive and helping others, and [00:28:30] I doubled down on that work from within corporate, both personally and professionally, and helped to drive inclusivity and diversity and true representation within their marketing communications efforts therein.

Sonia Kang:                       So this is great. Allison had been able to recreate, to a smaller degree, the values-based work she had done before and her new job, which on the surface seemed in conflict with her values, started to take on more meaning.

Emily Esfahani …:             [00:29:00] Raising kids, working on a project, putting together a podcast, making a presentation that’s really important, these are really stressful types of experiences that demand a lot from a person. So when you’re preparing, when you’re taking responsibility for a project or for another person, it’s a lot.

Sonia Kang:                       Emily Esfahani Smith is the author of the power of meaning.

Emily Esfahani …:             And I think that the expectation that work should make us happy [00:29:30] is therefore, a really flawed expectation because the things that we do that are worth the most to us, that mean the most to us require a lot of effort, and effort is never easy.

Sonia Kang:                       Meaning doesn’t always equal happiness in the moment, at least.

Emily Esfahani…:             What happens is when people do have more of a meaning orientation towards work, when they think about work more as a place for them to find meaning than a place for them to find happiness, [00:30:00] they, in the long run, have a deeper sense of contentment and satisfaction. So there’s that long term, deeper happiness that comes along the way.

Sonia Kang:                       Values can drive you to achieve and values can drive you to help others. Is ambition a big driver for you? Are relaxation and having fun more important? Or maybe the welfare of others has more meaning for you. No matter what you choose, no value is greater than any other. [00:30:30] You just need to figure out which ones matter most to you, because they do matter. They’re what guide our behaviors, inform how we relate to the people and organizations around us, and can be used to make better decisions, decisions that will lead us to find more meaning. But keep an open mind when it comes to meaning, meaning can exist in the most simple tasks, jobs, relationships, or experiences, and it can be shaped by how we choose to look at work and life.

                                             [00:31:00] Thanks for listening to this episode of For the Love of Work, an original podcast made possible by Rogers. If you’re just finding us now, welcome, and hey, where have you been? This is a series that explores what to do when you get stuck at work, or when you just want to adjust the trajectory of your career. If you want to explore that within the context of the employee experience, definitely check out the other episodes below this one, starting with building resilience, [00:31:30] then how to find the right company for you, or how to stand out at work, as well as psychological safety and professional development. You can also find us at…for the love of work dot c-a. I’m Sonia Kang. Talk soon.