May 01, 2024

2:00 p.m. ET

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Scholar presenter:

Elizabeth Trinh, University of Michigan

Seed generators:

Michael Pratt, Boston College

Heather C. Vough, George Mason University


Anchored or Adrift: An Inductive Study of Stability and Change in the Work Meanings of Leaders

Talk description:

Organizational leaders are ‘architects of meaning,’ tasked with crafting work environments that facilitate meaningful work for their employees. While existing research has examined leaders’ practices that imbue work with meaning for their workers, less is known about how leaders cultivate and sustain their own sense of meaningful work and how this influences their capacity to instill meaning in the work of others. We investigate these underexplored dynamics through longitudinal interviews with 43 nonprofit leaders. During unique conditions that disrupted employees’ sense of work meaning, leaders’ personal work meaning evolved with their efforts to re-establish meaningful work environments for their employees. In their attempts to restore meaningfulness by crafting meaning-making spaces, leaders underwent a reflection process, gauging employees’ reactions and assessing the perceived outcomes of their efforts. Leaders who noted positive outcomes engaged in verification, solidifying their sense of work meaning through meaning fortification. However, observing particularly negative outcomes prompted leaders to engage in justification or reckoning, the latter potentially destabilizing their work meaning and leading to meaning questioning. This questioning could stabilize or transform a leader’s work meaning, culminating in meaning transformation. Building on these findings, we develop a novel model in which leaders’ own sense of work meaning is dynamically influenced by their endeavors to infuse employees’ work with significance and purpose. We find that leaders’ experiences of meaning in work emerges as an interactive process that is deeply entwined with their employees’ experiences within meaning-making spaces.

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