Transformation Perspectives Series 10

How do we make our work more meaningful?


In this article we continue to explore polarities, focusing this time on the intriguing question of how balancing two important pairs of polarities can help to make your work more meaningful, and consequently also contributing to a more meaningful life. In this context, Nietzsche’s old adage comes to mind: “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how”. Viktor Frankl, Holocaust survivor and bedrock of psychological meaning, added to this concept by coining the phrase that people are driven by “the will to meaning”.

Many of us strive to pursue meaningful work. Studies have demonstrated that when we perceive our work as meaningful, this contributes to better engagement with our work, increased job satisfaction and motivation, as well as reduced stress and, ultimately, a higher life satisfaction. To find meaning in your work is not just a "nice-to-have". As studies have shown, for most people this form of psychological experience is so important that they would be willing to sacrifice a significant portion of their monetary income for it. It is therefore justified to say that, both as an employer and a leader, it is in my best interest to generate a work environment in which both I and my employees can find more meaning.

In the quest for meaning, two polarities play an important role:

  • self vs. others, and
  • being vs. doing.

The initial dual-axis model for meaningful work was proposed in 2012 by Lips-Wiersma & Morris, postulating that existential meaning lies in an equilibrium among the two polarities listed above. Let us look at the different polarities in more detail.

If we take a closer look at the polaritiy of being vs. doing, we find that each pole has both an upside (positive results of focusing on that pole, i.e. for “being”: authenticity, wellbeing and acceptance, for “doing”: success, drive, achievement and satisfaction), and a corresponding downside, which comes into play when there is too much focus on that pole to the neglect of the other pole (downside of too much “being”: laziness, complacency, stagnation; downside of too much “doing”: burnout, exhaustion. For a more detailed explanation of the polarities, see Transformation Perspectives No. 9).

The same applies to the polarity of self vs. other, where the upside of “self” includes independence, freedom and self-expression, and the downside selfishness and isolation. Looking at the pole of “other”, the upside consists of community, connection and kindness, and the downside includes exploitation, deflection of ownership and free riders. Neither polarity can be resolved, they are both ongoing; this means that it isn’t a question of choosing one pole over the other, but rather finding a good balance between the two, and realizing when it is time to shift from one to the other (usually when the downsides of that pole start to appear).  

With regard to finding meaning in our work, these two polarities can be combined into a dual-axis model (Graph 1: Meaning-Matrix). Notice how each quadrant reflects one important aspect of a meaningful experience:

  • The self/being choosing, entitled being oneself, reflects the importance of knowing oneself, of being able to be authentic and feel whole. How can we experience more of this? We want to strike a balance between being clearly aware, and being effortful. It’s a question of being able to simply do nothing, but without being distracted. When people are put in a scanner and told to do absolutely nothing, a region known as the default mode network flares up and becomes very active. This activity is primarily a self-referencing activity; it means we are thinking in terms of our past, present, and future and we are developing plausible or less plausible stories around our current situation, based on our experience and conditioning. If we train in meditation or mindfulness for some time, another area in our cortex lights up. This area is called the insula, and is not connected with any linear, time-based narrative. It is active when we are just experiencing the present moment in our body, being able to observe its sensations, feelings and thoughts.This understanding transforms powerfully Descartes for the Western world so influential axiom “I think, therefore I am” into “I am, therefore I may think.”


Graph 1: Meaning-Matrix (based on Lips-Wiesma & Morris)




  • The “self/doing” quadrant, entitled expressing your full potential, refers to the desire to live up to one’s full potential, to grow beyond one’s current state and to achieve a higher level of self-realization. Important prerequisites for this are self-discipline and perseverance. We also need to know our own values: what we care most about, what excites us in life and gives us satisfaction. Understanding what triggers our fight, flight or freeze reactions in situations where we are not able to choose our best response is a huge part of personal growth and of developing equanimity. In addition, asking others to provide feedback allows us to calibrate our self-perception and helps us to identify our blind spots.
  • The third quadrant, entitled unity with others, taps into the field of our ability to connect with the people around us, to find commonalities and thereby create a greater sense of belonging. It explores the area of identity, in which the definitions of inclusion and boundaries become important. Whatever comes after the words “I am….” is an identity statement. Whether we choose categories, nouns or verbs to describe ourselves makes a huge difference to how we define ourselves, and how we experience life. If we tend to choose verbs as descriptors, for example, we are likely to be more aware of and to acknowledge the process aspect of our lives.  
  • The “doing/others” quadrant, entitled service to others, refers to our striving to contribute to the greater good by having an impact. This gives us a sense of purpose and contribution, as well as generating added value. Being aware of one’s own purpose and thus being able to connect it to the overall purpose of the company enables us to experience a more meaningful engagement, both with ourselves and with others.


Hence, the subjective feeling of doing meaningful work emerges from fulfilling our needs in these four different quadrants. Depending on the focus of your work, you might find that certain quadrants are easy to satisfy, whereas others seem harder to reach. An important first step in gaining more awareness of where we currently stand is to ask yourself: in which of the quadrants do you have a sense of clarity and satisfaction? And in which of them do you sense there is still room for expressing your potential?

And as a leader, where do you see your employees? How could you empower them to find more meaning in their work?

In our eyes, the beauty of this dual-axis model is the realization that meaningful work results from being able to balance different needs, as well as giving space to different desires. It also shows that a real purpose, be it of an organization or an individual, always includes some aspect of contributing towards others.


Dr. Mélanie Huser and Dr. Thomas Gartenmann

This is part of the Transformation Perspectives Series by