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Episode 2
The Science Behind Meaningful Work with Dr. Gabriella Kellerman

The Science Behind Meaningful Work with Dr. Gabriella Kellerman

Former Reddit Co-Founder and CEO Alexis Ohanian shares how investing in employee happiness translates to better long-term business outcomes.

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Mathilde Collin

Hi, everyone. I'm Mathilde Collin. I'm the CEO and co-founder of a company called Front. I started this company because I wanted more people to come to work every day and be happy about it. 

So a few years ago, I started a quest so that I could understand better what makes people happy at work? What helps them find meaning? And as part of that I've been meeting with people that have an interesting perspective on finding meaning and happiness at work. 

So today, I'm super excited to have Dr. Gabriella Kellerman, who is Chief Innovation Officer at BetterUp. She has spent a lot of her life thinking about meaningful work. And so, for example, last year she published with her team research that shows the link and the strong connection between meaning and purpose at work and strong business outcomes. 

So today, I'm super excited to dig deeper into all the research that you've done. Thank you for being here. 

Dr. Gabriella Kellerman

Thanks for having me. Great to be here. 

Mathilde Collin 

So, Gabriella, what is a Chief Innovation Officer and what is BetterUp? 

Dr. Gabriella Kellerman 

BetterUp is the mobile development platform. We coach employees at organizations of all sizes around the world and support them on both personal and professional development topics. As Chief Innovation Officer, I lead the BetterUp labs arm of the organization, which is where we do the basic science around those personal and professional development topics. So we're studying the fundamentals of everything from meaning and purpose at work to inclusive leadership to open communication and even things like creativity and innovation. 

Mathilde Collin

It feels to me that, you know, a few decades ago when I was talking to my parents, my grandparents, they weren't obsessing as much as I am or as other people from my generation are about meaningful work. And for them, you know, having a secure career that was peaceful was enough. 

So when do you think people started hearing about finding meaning in their work and why? 

Dr. Gabriella Kellerman

Yeah, great question. So there seem to be two trends that have come together historically to result in this kind of cultural phenomenon of looking for meaning at work. So the first is it's new in human history that we have a choice in the kind of work that we got to do. And for most of our existence as a species, you did what your parents did and probably what hundreds of generations before you did, whether that was being a hunter-gatherer or a farmer. Even when we became factory workers and miners, there were long periods of time where you just kept doing what the people before you did. 

And we know that people did find work meaningful. 

Historically, it's natural that if you're spending the bulk of your living hours doing one activity over and over again, you're going to find some connection to it. But they weren't going out to find a profession that would maximize their meaning. That is new. And it has a lot to do with the fact that we have a choice now. So we actually have the luxury of being able to add that in as a decision criteria. 

And then the other trend is the disappearance of religion in Western civilization. So, there's been a huge decline in our affiliation with religion, our religious practices. But what hasn't declined is our desire for spirituality and for meaning, for a broader sense of purpose. And so it's only natural that that's going to start to migrate to the venue where we spend most of our waking hours and work and become part of what informs how we decide how we spend our time. 

Mathilde Collin

Yeah, that makes sense. So now when someone wants to find more meaning, what do you tell them? What do you think are the ingredients that contribute to people finding their job meaningful? 

Dr. Gabriella Kellerman

So there are typically three different parts of the definition of meaningful work and we can speak about all of them at once, which is usually colloquially what we do. We can kind of break them down. So the three are significance, coherence, and purpose. 

Significance is I feel that I matter. I feel that my time here on Earth is worth it. Coherence is a sense of being part of something bigger. So I feel that my existence meshes with the purpose of the universe in some way. And then purpose is I have a particular goal or mission that's driving me and animating me. And people can mean any of these things or all of these things when they talk about meaning. 

And in terms of the drivers of meaning at work, there are seven known drivers based on looking at all the evidence of what people volunteer as the source of meaning for them. Some of the big ones are a sense of personal growth. So we come to work wanting to know that we're going to grow as a human being through that journey at work. Professional growth is another source and separate source, so feeling that you grow in your career, but actually is not as important a driver as personal growth. And then just a few others to round it out. A sense of feeling that our work is in service of others. A sense of shared meaning is very important, so feeling that we share this sense of our work being meaningful with our coworkers and that we also share the value that our work should be meaningful with our coworkers and with our leaders. And the last one I'll mention is inspiration. Feeling inspired by your leaders is a huge driver of what makes people find their work meaningful. 

Mathilde Collin 

Right. So it feels to me that in the list that you just shared, there are some where as an individual I can maybe influence them. And there they're some where I can't because the company I'm working for or the organization and working for is responsible for bringing leaders that can inspire me, for example. 

So, maybe we can look at both, the individual and then the organization. So as an individual, if I'm thinking about these seven criteria that that you shared, and I feel like I'm not the happiest, most fulfilled version of myself, and I want to find more meaning. What would be your advice to me in helping me achieve this on things that I can control? 

Dr. Gabriella Kellerman

So on the topic of meaning and purpose. Many people don't have a great degree of clarity on what their animating purpose is. And they also may not have a great degree of clarity on their core values. And it's just not something we spend a lot of time sitting down to think about and really get clear on. So that's the first thing that I would do and that I do with folks on my team. 

And actually, as a manager or a leader of others, it's important that you be able to speak to what drives each individual sense of meaningful work in order to help them be happy and thriving in their workplace. So as an individual getting clear on that and then figuring out how your work does or does not align with it. There's always ways to turn your current situation into something that at the very minimum advances you more toward finding that meaning and purpose or finding more opportunities in your career to have that meaning and purpose. 

And best case scenario, where you feel deeply fulfilled in the work you're currently doing as actually informing that. 

Mathilde Collin 

That makes sense. So I'm an individual and I will spend a lot of time thinking about the values that I hear about, and I will try to find what I think is driving me as a human being and then see how it matches the work that I'm currently doing. 

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