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Meaning at work: the role of the leader

By Julia Wellbelove – Head of Research, Roffey Park

Photo of father and son walking along the beach holding hands

Walking recently along a Devon beach on a warm autumn day, with my hand being grasped by a little hand, I reflected that this was surely what life was all about? And yet, I thought, this was just a fleeting moment, a short relaxing break, punctuating my working life. This led me to think about the time people spend at work – estimates vary from a quarter to a third of our waking lives – and therefore how critical it is for human beings to find meaning in their work as well as outside work. Meaning comes from connecting with others, having a sense of personal purpose, and a heightened understanding of what is really important, of what it is to be human. Focusing on the whole person, our values, purpose, emotions, spirituality and well-being has long been, and remains, a central principle in our leadership skills development work with clients at Roffey Park.

In 2004 Roffey Park published its In Search of Meaning at Work[1] research which found that almost three quarters (70%) of leaders and managers were searching for a greater sense of meaning in their working lives. More than a decade on from this research our millennials, who bring with them a strong social conscience and desire to contribute positively to society[2], have now hit the workplace. I can see in many ways this group has been a positive force for change in the workplace, as organisations can no longer continue with unethical business practices or socially irresponsible policies if they are to attract the best talent. Another indication that this might be the case comes from a piece of unpublished research[3] conducted four years ago by my colleague Adrian Lock. He found that nearly two thirds (61%) of managers felt their senior leaders and managers actively encouraged a sense of meaning and purpose for people in their work, and importantly were viewed as being quite successful in their quest.

So what are the top leadership skills required to make work meaningful?

  1. Lived values: having a set of organisational values that people can relate to personally, are aligned to, and which are firmly put into practice. Leaders have to go beyond the rhetoric of values statements and corporate social responsibility policies and really embody leadership values. I experienced this in action recently when I was working with an MD of an insurance company. Our meeting began a little late to allow him to distribute breakfast in a local school. When he arrived it was clear to see the emotional and psychological impact of the visit, and I am in no doubt that on that day the work he did became infinitely more meaningful.
  2. Ethical leadership: having a clear vision and mission that is ethical, to which people can really connect. This helps people see how their work fits a wider purpose and makes what they do clearly valuable. Effective leaders make people feel listened to and consulted, which in turn helps people feel connected to a shared sense of destiny.
  3. Facilitate collaboration: the need to feel connected is part of the human psychology. Increased digitalisation (e.g. email and virtual working) can threaten this and reduce a sense of community and opportunities for teamwork. There is a paradox here; advances in technology have meant we are more connected than we have ever been before, contact with the other side of the world can be almost instant, yet there is a feeling that human communication is breaking down, people have stopped really talking and listening to one another. Effective leaders prioritise bringing people together so they can connect socially and share learning. Encouraging a climate where people are curious about one another’s experiences, and where work is collaborative and fun makes people feel they belong to a meaningful work community.

The beach is now a distant memory, and I’m ok with that, my work gives me a fair amount of meaning and purpose. My focus now is on my leadership, and my intent to hold myself to account for making work meaningful for those who work with me.

[1] In Search of Meaning at Work (2004) by Linda Holbeche and Nigel Springett. Roffey Park

[2] 2018 Deloitte Millennial Survey report accessed at:

[3] Meaning and purpose in leadership (2014) Adrian Lock

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