These days, it seems that many workers are leaving high-paid corporate positions to pursue a more meaningful career. For these people, finding a job that’s emotionally rewarding is top priority, and far more important than financial gains. While the concept of ‘meaningful’ work is obviously different for everyone, it can almost always be linked to an individual’s personal values.
To understand this, it’s important to see the connection between personal (or core) values and job satisfaction. One of the main reasons why people are unhappy in their jobs is that their work, career or employer is at odds with their values. Often, employees won’t even realize their dissatisfaction stems from this mis-match – there’s just a general feeling that something isn’t quite right.
For someone who values fairness, for example, it could be very frustrating and upsetting to work for an organization that frequently rewards or tolerates unjust behavior. For workers who strongly value compassion, finding out that the company they work for is testing on animals could be a sudden deal breaker. Public servants may also experience discomfort when the government they work for changes, or alters policy.
Over time, this discordance of values can lead to negative consequences for both employee and employer.
Working in an environment that goes against your core values is not only frustrating, but can also lead to serious health issues, as both mental and physical wellbeing are affected by stress. We can see this in people who have burnt out at work, after many years of trying to fit square-shaped values into a round hole.
In contrast, individuals who consider their work to be meaningful are generally more productive, motivated and happy in their jobs. As Dr Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, author of The Talent Delusion, explains, “when people pick jobs that fulfill basic psychological needs, motives, and values, they immerse themselves more in their work, experience higher levels of job satisfaction, and their productivity rises.” This has benefits for the whole organization, leading to a more positive work culture and better business results.
To determine your core values, you need to be aware of what motivates you. Individuals are motivated by many different things, especially in the workplace. Are you driven by money, power, recognition by your peers? Or perhaps your idea of meaningful work is connected to altruism, the desire to help people?
Once you find what motivates you, you’ll have a far better idea of what’s most important to you and how to get where you need to be. If you find that helping and connecting with people is top of your list, you might decide to explore teaching or social work, rather than continuing to work 9-5 in a job with no human interaction.
Dr Chamorro-Premuzik says, “if you know something simply doesn't motivate you, like a fat paycheck or great travel opportunities – even if it motivates others – don't regard it as an incentive for your next job.”
The interesting thing about values is that even if you’ve never consciously considered them before, your values are still an intrinsic part of you. Many people aren’t even aware that they exist until something happens that questions or threatens their values. Taking the time to figure out what’s really important to you, and exactly what it is that motivates you, will help you to be more prepared and resilient when your values are tested.
Once you’ve clarified your personal values, you’ll find it far easier to understand and trust any gut feelings that arise when you’re on the wrong path. Defining your values also allows you to “set goals that resonate, as opposed to frustrate,” says Associate Professor Anthony Grant, from The University of Sydney's Coaching Psychology Unit.
“If your goal is aligned with your core values, the thought of it will trigger a positive gut feeling. That feeling is what will keep you ploughing ahead until you've nailed it.” When you feel good about your work, career and employer you’ll be able to achieve far greater motivation, success and happiness.
To return to Dr Chamorro-Premuzik again: “we work more effectively when we're invested in what we do. And one of the keys to feeling engaged at work is aligning your own idiosyncratic values with those of your organization, your team, and your direct manager – when you're all working together towards something you believe in.”
Set aside some time to think about what it is that you believe in. What motivates you? What are your personal values? Figuring out how you can work in line with your values could be the best step of your career, as well as your life.