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Employment Today, HR Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Employment Today Magazine

Making work meaningful

The Map of Meaning is a simple framework that captures what makes work meaningful and returns power and responsibility to everyone in an organisation. Lani Morris explains how it can be used to design systems that work for us.

Employees shine when work is meaningful to them. More surprising is that a focus on what makes work meaningful can lead to real change in an organisation, helping to eliminate the disengagement that senior management can experience as a dead weight, and which employees experience as a working life without any real purpose, or with purpose that is frustrated.

Given that the cost of disengagement is huge—reputed to be over $300 billion in the US alone in lost productivity—and that the cost to the disengaged individuals is also of profound consequence—the World Health Organisation predicts that by 2030 depression will be the biggest cause of disability in the world—a way to rethink how we design the world of work would be valuable in both economic and human terms.

In spite of much rhetoric about empowerment, the current design of most organisations is still based on the ancient ideas of Plato and the Roman army. Organisations are designed to have roles filled with individuals, while at the same time ensuring that those individuals have little influence. The power is with the leader, hence the excessive focus on leadership development. Leaders at the top and (sometimes) middle tier of the organisation are seen as the key ingredient to success, responsible for generating meaning in, and productivity from, their followers.

This view of organisations is the dominant one for many people and while there have been challenges, the hierarchy has held. But behind this lies the simple truth that organisations are human constructions and as such can be designed in any way we like. Yet, employees do not experience this creative freedom.

Typically, if you ask people to draw an organisation they draw organisational charts, or buildings. Over years of working in organisations, I have seen very few people draw an organic, or human-focused organisation, or one that captures the systemic nature of organisations. However, if you take away the people there is no organisation. What is left is an empty object—the building—and a concept, both made by human beings to serve our needs. Yet, as with many “systems” that we have designed, over time the “system” becomes more powerful than any individual and it seems to take a revolution to question or redesign it, even when it is not working for most of the people in it.

To fulfil our individual and collective needs in the workplace we need to rethink how we conceptualise and, as a result, design organisations. This does not need to be invasive, destructive or expensive. If we think of design as “intentionally influencing”, then questioning and adjusting can be as effective as whole-oforganisation restructuring. Especially if this questioning and adjustment can include everyone involved, leaving them engaged and with a clear sense of the value of the change and the value of themselves.

One approach that works in this way is provided by the Map of Meaning (shown above), a simple framework that captures what makes work meaningful. Based on empirical research and tested in many countries in the world over the past 17 years, the Map of Meaning reveals that our human search for meaning is fulfilled by a simple set of dimensions. And while each person finds meaning in their own way, the dimensions are shared. So, while the Map helps individuals connect to what is important, at the same time it gives us a common, simple foundation for questioning the way we organise. This can be done at a whole organisation level, or to examine an existing practice or issue, or to invent a new one.

Over the past years we have worked with the Map of Meaning in a range of organisations, and with a range of interventions. Practitioners in Australia, the UK, the EU and New Zealand have found that using the Map to focus on what makes work meaningful gets to the heart of issues quickly and produces practical, constructive results in a range of organisational practices such as strategic planning, performance review, conflict resolution, career planning, and in reviewing a communication strategy.

Because the dimensions of meaningful work are shared, and because doing work that feels worth doing is a common human need, the Map is effective at any level of the organisation, involves every person and can be simply introduced. It works just as well within organisations that think of themselves in hierarchical ways as those which are more aware of the systemic nature of organisations. The surprise to everyone is how focusing on a topic that seems so fluffy and abstract as “meaning” actually simplifies the complex, and results in immediate practical action.


The Map of Meaning (above) arose out of research done by Professor Marjolein Lips-Wiersma, Professor of Ethics and Sustainability Leadership at AUT University. It shows that people share four pathways to meaning: integrity with self (for example, feeling ethically aligned with organisational practices); expressing full potential (having a sense of achievement or being able to put forward an idea and see it acted on); unity with others (feeling connected and at home with colleagues); and service to others (experiencing work as making a difference today and in the long term).

These four pathways are held within three tensions: one between our need to be and our need to do; another between our need to care for our selves and our need to care for others; and finally the need to integrate both what inspires us and the reality of our self and our circumstances into our daily work. While each person fulfils these needs in their own way, people have the essential drivers of meaningful work in common. This means that for people to have meaningful work, these dimensions need to be “designed into” their work roles and organisational processes.

When any one dimension of meaningful work is lost, missing or destroyed (for example, no one listens to your ideas; you feel ethically compromised by a new policy; your team gets split up; you feel that your work no longer makes any difference; or the new budget cuts savage a new and inspiring project) people lose the experience of work as meaningful. People’s reactions to the loss of meaningfulness may often appear as negative or unconstructive, when actually they are a healthy response to a frustrated quest for meaning—because, whether or not it is conscious, the search for meaning is inherent to humans. Every day, each person goes to work hoping to find that their energy, talents and time are used in ways that feel worthwhile to them.

By placing meaning at the core of daily tasks, decisions and even strategy, we have found employees at any level of the organisation can connect directly to what is important and, in connecting to meaning, become proactive in fulfilling the practical outcomes of organising.

As one of the regular users of the Map in large organisations, Claudia Butler from Frameworks for Change in Australia, says: “Organisations are so fragmented, full of so many roles and functions. The Map of Meaningful Work shows how each one of these is connected to meaning. Whenever I use it, it creates a path to resolution and a practical way forward. It links the macro and the micro elements of an organisation, moving from the internal world of an individual to the wider world of the organisation and the context in which it operates.”

With the help of the Map, employees can quickly identify what is meaningful to them, what supports meaning and what gets in the way. Working with the Map of Meaning is inherently a bottom-up process.

Most leadership programmes teach that it is important to involve all the people affected by any system you are evaluating or changing, but many leaders quickly tire of this idea. Working with the Map helps leaders listen to their staff in a new way—as people driven by a need for meaningful work, who are naturally inspired, who want connection with others, to use their talents to the full, to make a difference, and to do work where there is a real alignment between rhetoric and practice. Listening in this way can be profoundly moving, especially when the leader also shares what makes work meaningful to them.


While the Map of Meaning comes alive in the hands of a skilled certified practitioner who can easily frame questions to address a specific issue, we can show how meaning can immediately be made practical by walking through an example. In this situation, we examine how to evaluate a performance review process by asking some questions from the perspective of whether or not it is meaningful—given that it is so often seen as meaningless by staff and managers.

In the centre: Inspiration.

  • • 
    How do we see the performance review process contributing to or as an expression of our mission?

Around the very outside: the Reality of Circumstances.

  • • 
    What external demands are having an impact on us and are going to affect us in the next year or two?
  • • 
    How does the performance review process prepare us to respond to these challenges, and help us to fulfil our mission?

The questions then follow the dimensions of the four pathways of the Map of Meaning.

Unity with Others:

  • • 
    How does the performance review process increase the sense of belonging to our organisation? Does it get in the way of this in any way?
  • • 
    What could change so that the performance review increases a sense of community? Or what would we need to change in the performance review so it decreased a sense of “us versus them”?

Expressing Full Potential:

  • • 
    How does the performance review process help each person to express how they would like to fulfil their potential?
  • • 
    Does it limit them doing this in some way?
  • • 
    What could change so that the performance review increases people’s ability to express their full potential?

Service to Others:

  • • 
    Does this process increase or decrease our ability to make the difference we are committed to making—to each other as internal clients/to our clients/in our society?
  • • 
    Or does it block this in some way?
  • • 
    Can we alter the performance review process to support employees to make more of a difference?

Integrity with Self:

  • • 
    How does the performance review process help people feel in integrity with themselves? Or are there ways that it blocks this?
  • • 
    How does it leave space for people to express any ethical concern they have?
  • • 
    How does this system allow for personal growth? For individuals, and for us as an organisation?

The questions do not need to be complex, just express the key aspects of the relevant dimension in relation to the system/procedure/practice under investigation. They can be shaped to fit more accurately into any specific context. You can find many more questions and case studies in our book.

As is clear from the example, to accurately answer these questions, employees need to be involved in the design of a performance review, or any other organisational practice.

Working with the Map of Meaning with questions like these helps each person to reconnect practices and systems to their own experience, keep what is meaningful, and legitimately question what is not meaningful. This has the effect of returning power and responsibility to all the people in an organisation. It has the ability to cut through the “them and us” that bedevil organisations and helps to return to the “we”.

In reflecting on the experience, one manager who redesigned performance reviews around questions like these found that the performance review that resulted provided employees with much richer information about what was important in their work, as well as helping him to understand their motivation. Everyone commented on how working with the Map helped them speak about their work as passionately committed people and how much they appreciated the absence of organisational jargon. In one case, an employee gained such clear insight going through the questions that they sorted out a key issue for themselves before the meeting with the manager.

“It was revealing to them and to me to explore this depth of connection to the purpose of the work, rather than just focusing on their tasks. This is showing up now in a number of ways. When we have our monthly meeting, it now occurs in a different context, one in which we are all clear on what is and is not meaningful and the tasks are an expression of that.”

While this process took some time, it has resulted in an organisational practice that is now designed to support meaningful work, and which can be adapted over time in the light of a basic understanding of the Map. For example, another organisation chooses to focus on just one aspect of meaningful work each review period. As one manager said: “It felt a bit big to do the whole thing at once, so we just agree which one we want to focus on and work with that. For example, the last time it was on unity with others, which we agreed really needed attention. It has worked brilliantly because it keeps meaningful work alive and re-energises us each time we engage with it.”

This ability to use the Map of Meaning as a reference point for on-going adaptation provides people with an anchor even in the midst of change, because it is a framework that is constantly relevant. As Professor Lips-Wiersma says, “Being human is not a fad.” So a framework which speaks to the heart of what matters most to human beings is worth investing in. It gives the organisation a simple tool that can be used in virtually all situations, as people use a compass or a GPS, and it helps each person be more resilient in the face of uncertainty and change. It keeps the focus on values that are real and concrete and part of employee’s daily experience.

By viewing employees as people driven by a need for meaningful work, and by using the Map of Meaning as a way to engage with this need, organisations can focus on what people DO want. In this sense, it is a constructive tool. In this constructive context people can speak up and look at any system to see if it can be altered before trying to alter the people, or asking them to “make the best of” the situation. In this way we can design systems that work for us, and which are designed around principles that are enduringly relevant to the human beings who work with them.

The Map of Meaning is a sense-making tool. It helps people to find order within complexity. So often responses to interventions in which the Map of Meaning has been used are: “That was so easy, I never thought it would be,” accompanied by the feeling of completeness, that nothing has been left out, a feeling of peacefulness and calm that is rare in the current workplace. This effect leads Professor Tim Hall of Boston University to call the Map of Meaningful Work “an oasis in the field of management.”

LANI MORRIS is co-founder and CEO of Map of Meaning International. Learn more about the Map of Meaning at:, or buy the second edition of The Map of Meaningful Work: A Practical Guide to Sustaining Our Humanity, published by Routledge.

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