My job is my life: The connection between meaningful work and personal identity

January 16, 2008

Business researchers have long proposed that when employees find their work meaningful and fulfilling, they are more likely to do that work well, and, as a result, help their companies succeed.

Few have disputed this simple equation. But recently, Kevin Corley and his colleague Heather Vough began to wonder if it may be a bit too simple. Corley, an assistant professor of management at the W. P. Carey School of Business, does not dispute that meaningful work plays a large role in how well an employee performs. Rather, he believes there's something more that drives an employee to endure an awful commute and put in an honest day's work at the office.

"One of the things that's very important to me is trying to get a better sense of how employees attach themselves to organizations," explains Coley. "What is it, I want to know, that leads an employee to not only get up every morning for that organization, but also be committed enough to do a really good job and really apply their skills and experiences?"

In a recent study, Corley attempted to find an answer.

The resulting paper, "Video Didn't Kill the Radio Star: Exploring the Role of Identity in Meaningful Work through Identification," breaks new ground. It helps establish the connection between an individual's identity and the meaningfulness of his work.

Identification in this context is the extent to which an individual connects his personal identity to his work or employer. Meaningfulness refers to the sense of purpose and significance or value and worth that employees find in their work. Corley's study establishes that identity is a core element in meaningful work, and is one of the first to attempt to bridge the long-standing theoretical gap between meaning of work and personal identity, which until now had only been theorized.

"These two areas -- meaning of work and organizational identification -- are key aspects of how employees attach or do not attach themselves to an organization, but their relationship is not well understood," Corley says. Meaningfulness and identity have been examined independently, he said, and studies about one typically mention the other. But until now researchers have not looked deeply at the dynamic between the two. Corley wanted to know more about the connection.

For his study Corley chose what might appear to be an unlikely place: a college radio station.

Radio days

"We were very interested in an organizational setting that was not molded after your typical Fortune 500 company," Corley explains. "We didn't want a place where employees would be saying, 'I am going to work for this company forever.' We really wanted to capture more of the temporal nature of work that's going on in today's business world -- we wanted a place that relied more on seasonal people, or part-time workers, a place where people come and go."

An attorney at a large law firm may be committed to the firm long-term based on tenure or financial reward, Corley explained, but the workers at this college station would have a much different relationship to their organization. Many of the station's workers would be around for only a short time. Several of them didn't even draw a paycheck.

"In the setting we were looking at, we were talking about mostly students who were always coming and going," Corley said. "It was a much more transient situation. Any sense of 'identity' we found was going to be based in connection to the organization. These folks were there for the excitement of being in radio. It was about having an opportunity to provide something and do something they really wanted to do."

Run almost entirely by students, the station that Corley investigated had just five full-time employees: four sales managers and one operations manager. The 50-year-old station had been a "rock" station since the late 1960s, but during Corley's study it transitioned from a traditional rock format to "college rock."

What Corley sought to do was find out just why these student workers committed themselves to the station. Why get up at 5 a.m., he wondered, to work for such little pay -- or no pay at all?

To find out, Corley and his colleague conducted a series of interviews with 20 employees at the station, observed the organizational dynamics by sitting in on staff meetings and sorted through the station's internal records and other documents.

During the interviews, which lasted up to an a hour each, Corley asked fundamental questions such as, "What makes you get up every day and come to work?" and "What is meaningful to you in your job?"

Corley discovered that the employees found meaningfulness in their work from eight specific sources: self-expression, autonomy, career experience, learning, compensation, internal contribution, external contribution, and social relationships. Going a step further, Corley pulled out those sources of meaningfulness that played directly into professional identification -- self-expression, autonomy, career experience and learning.

The results of the study bore out almost precisely what Corley had expected. The four sources of meaningfulness related to identity, combined with an opportunity to contribute to an organization's success, helped employees develop a sense of professional identification and a deeper connection with the organization.

What does it all mean? Better, happier employees

Corley writes that when employees "find meaningfulness in contributing to their organization and in interacting with people external to the organization, they were more likely to identify with the organization." In other words, employees who are given important jobs within an organization are more likely to identify themselves with that organization, and therefore want to perform well.

"The more that workers find their jobs meaningful, the more satisfied they'll be in their jobs, and the more likely they'll be able to provide good customer service," Corley says.

But there's more. Corley adds that employees who find meaning in their work actually live happier and more balanced lives.

"One of the things that we didn't get very much into in this paper was the fact that the more meaningful you find your job, the better able you are to handle work/life stress," he said. "People who don't find their jobs meaningful, or those who are just focused on the money or because the job will get them where they want to be, tend to have more turnover, more absences."

Though more work must be done to fully explore the connections between meaningful work, identity and workplace performance, Corley says this study does lay valuable theoretical groundwork.

It also provides some guidance for managers.

"Every employee is different, of course, but providing opportunities for employees [to contribute] -- there's a lot of value in that," Corley says. "If managers can provide the opportunity for employees to fulfill those desires, it can go a long way toward helping them find meaningfulness in their work."

Bottom Line:

  • Business researchers have long proposed that when employees find meaning in their work, they are more likely to perform better. They also believe that when employees identify with their employer, they will do well.
  • In a new study, management Professor Kevin Corley and his colleague take this one step further -- exploring the role that an employee's identification with an organization plays in meaning of work.
  • Studying a college radio station, Corley learned that employees who have autonomy at work, who have opportunities to express themselves and learn on the job, and who gain career experience during the day find meaning in their work and identify with their profession.
  • Corley also found employees are more likely to identify with their organization when they feel as though they are contributing to its success.