Friday, February 19, 2021

A Surge and Emotion: When Meaningful Work Becomes Too Busy

If you are like many of us, you are secretly or openly envious of those who have especially meaningful work. We may find meaning in some parts of our work but not all, and we are very aware of those who connect their work and passion perfectly. There is the artist who is so successful that all their time is spent creating art, not selling it. There is the humanitarian who works with an NGO that keeps its people in the field, in the places with the greatest need and effect of their work. There is the medical doctor who has stayed away from the repetition of general practice and specialist clinics and instead spends all the time diagnosing and helping unique cases.

In our envy, we overlook something special about meaningful work. It derives much of the meaning from the pursuit of quality, and as a result, it needs to be done at a slow pace. The violinist who has to prepare too many pieces resents the sacrifice in preparation. The humanitarian and doctor who need to solve problems too fast worry about failures. But then, what happens with the people doing meaningful work when there is a surge in the workflow? This is the topic of research by Winnie Yun Jiang published in Administrative Science Quarterly. Her research context is perfect for the topic because she examined how a US refugee-resettlement agency was overwhelmed by a surge in refugees, most from the Syrian war.

Consider the transition from doing meaningful work to being overwhelmed with work. The purpose of the work is unchanged – so many people are in great need, and this organization is their main line of support to find a place to live, find work, and quickly integrate into a new and very different society. This takes time and effort. Except there isn’t any time because there are many more refugees than before, so either the workers have to stretch their hours and efforts to the maximum or do less for each refugee, or maybe both. The work is the same, but the motivation and meaning fade.

Can an organization built on meaningful work handle this? They cannot easily expand because meaningful work is typically meaningful for some people but not others. They cannot reward their workers more because most organizations with meaningful work are low-budget outfits to begin with – they are built around the idea that meaningful work means that high pay is not needed. They cannot routinize work for speed because tailoring is at the core of meaningful work. This type of organization is not well suited to handle workload surges, so its members have to adapt.

Can the members handle it? Jiang found they adapted in multiple ways, with varying levels of success. One approach was to change their work by drawing new boundaries that eliminated the most time-consuming tasks, while still performing faster versions of the same service. For example, they would no longer go with the refugees to get drivers’ licenses but would make and give out information sheets on how to do so. A deeper change was to redefine the work so that the meaning given was a better fit to what they could accomplish in the new situation. The most common redefinition was to focus on the number of new resettlements they could handle instead of the attention to each one. Typically, though, the members would find a middle road with some focus on individuals while also making sure they handled the surge.

Were managers useful? Some of them were very helpful in the transition because they focused on sense-giving. They were able to reframe the work in ways that gave meaning even as the refugee surge made the old style of working impossible. They explained how essential the organization had become, and they empowered its members through expressing and focusing on positive emotions. Even as the organization had difficulty dealing with the surge, its leaders helped the members adapt. And that is a central feature of leadership: When the organization fails, or nearly fails, leaders can still keep its members motivated and functional.  

Jiang, W. Y. 2021. Sustaining Meaningful Work in a Crisis: Adopting and Conveying a Situational Purpose. Administrative Science Quarterly, forthcoming.