Making a Difference Through our Work

Meaningfulness increases significantly with density and diversity of sources of meaning; the relationship between density and meaningfulness is largely mediated by diversity. Findings indicate that commitment to numerous, diverse, and, especially, self-transcendent sources of meaning enhances the probability of living a meaningful life’ (Schnell, 2011).

Over the past few weeks, I have been reading two books.  The first one, Eight Lives Down is about British bomb disposal expert, Chris Hunter.  The book takes the reader through four months of his work in Iraq mainly in the war torn city of Basra, where he and his team braved attacks to go about the work of bomb disposal.

The second book, On the Front Line: The Collected Journalism of Marie Colvin 1986-2012 is a collection of the author’s reports from war zones.  Colvin, an extraordinary writer and an incredibly brave woman was killed in Syria last year.

What do these two books have in common and what do they have to do with HR?

Both books are, of course, nonfiction and although Marie wrote about conflict in other places, many of her accounts are from the Middle East.  Chris’s story is centered in Iraq.  As a resident of the Middle East, I want to know what is going on in the nearby countries and both books were not only great reads, but very eye opening.

Chris Hunter and Marie Colvin expressed an incredible dedication to their work, but beyond that, they felt their work was vital.  Chris was intent on saving lives and Marie was fixated on getting the story out.

I think most of us want to do work that is important; we want to make a difference, to build a better world through education, managing product quality, leadership, research, service – whatever we do in our jobs .   We are not content to have a job that just brings in the pay.

As HR professionals, I think it is important to remember that our colleagues and employees have a desire to do their best, to make a difference, to contribute no matter what their work.

Most of us will never be asked take the risks that these authors took, or save lives on an almost daily basis, but we will make a difference – often more than we know.

In 2009, John Varney, Chief executive at the Centre for Management Creativity, in Settle, in the United Kingdom wrote, Leadership as Meaning –Making.  He makes the case that the role of a leader is to ensure that people’s work is meaningful.  As he sees it, meaningful work negates the need for traditional supervision.  The leadership role becomes one of championing employees to overcome challenges so they can find fulfillment in their work.  People are motivated and energized by the idea of making a difference.   Recruiting and retention are easier because applicants are attracted to companies where they can make a difference.

Fortunately, there has been a lot of research on what gives meaning to people’s lives.   I am somewhat familiar with the work of Tatjana Schnell, a professor and research psychologist at Innsbruck University in Austria.  Schnell has developed what she calls ‘domains and sources of meaning’.  Schnell identifies several sources of meaning, including: challenge, freedom, knowledge, achievement, tradition, community, fun, care and attentiveness.    She also talks about the importance ‘taking responsibility for affairs beyond one’s immediate concern’. 

According to Marano (2004), when workers know their work makes a difference, productivity rises and so does job satisfaction.

How can we build an organization that makes people’s work meaningful?  It seems to me that it goes right back to the vision and mission– if employees understand see them as meaningful and understand their contribution to achieving them, this is a good start.  In his article, Marano talks about research that shows the employees who can see the client’s satisfaction with the product are more motivated.

As I finish this off, I am reminded of a cleaner who worked at SFU when I was a student there, he had all kinds of signs fastened to his cleaning cart and he was always whistling or singing as he went about his work, cleaning the outside concourse.  At the time, it didn’t strike me as important, but now I can see that he was making his job meaningful.  He was happy in his work and he made a difference.  That concourse was clean and even on days when the burden of the world was on my shoulders (studying seemed like hard work, indeed) he brought a smile to my face.


Colvin, M.  (2012).  On the Front Line.  Harper Collins

Hunter, C. (2010) Eight Lives Down.   Transworld

Marano, H. (2004.) Making a Difference at Work.  Psychology Today

Schnell, T. (2011).  Individual differences in meaning-making: Considering the variety of sources of meaning, their density and diversity. Personality and Individual Differences, 51(5), 667-673. doi:10.1016/

Varney, J. (2009). Leadership as meaning-making. Human Resource Management International Digest, 17(5), 3-5. doi:10.1108/09670730910974251

Varney, J.  Sustainable Leadership Makes Sense

1 thought on “Making a Difference Through our Work

  1. Pingback: The Saturday Weekend Review- #16 Are You Making A Difference? | Canadian Budget Binder

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