Meaningless Work Threatens Job Performance

Open, transparent communication across the organisation is generally associated with improved employee motivation and organisational outcomes. For supervisors, the question arises how to deal with rather inconvenient information, such as in the case of a project failure. Informing employees after significant investments of time and effort might lead to negative effects on subsequent work motivation, one could argue. To identify a causal relationship between the meaning of previously completed work and workers’ subsequent work performance, we exploited a natural working environment in which the loss of the job’s meaning occurred as a matter of fact. At the same time, it was possible to credibly guide only part of the workforce to believe in the sudden loss of meaning by conducting a controlled experiment.

19. July 2017

Authors Adrian Chadi Sabrina Jeworrek Vanessa Mertins

Suggested Reading


Arbeit ohne Sinn gefährdet die Produktivität

Sabrina Jeworrek

in: Wirtschaft im Wandel, No. 3, 2017


Arbeit ohne Sinn ruft nicht nur negative Emotionen wie Enttäuschung oder das Gefühl, ersetzbar zu sein, hervor; vielmehr wird auch die zukünftige Arbeitsmotivation der Beschäftigten beeinflusst. Eine experimentelle Studie, die auf einer realen Arbeitssituation beruht, zeigt, dass Beschäftigte einen signifikant niedrigeren Arbeitseinsatz leisten, wenn ein vorangegangenes Projekt seinen ursprünglichen Sinn verloren hat. Die Information, dass das Projekt auch einen alternativen Zweck erfüllte, kompensiert die negativen Effekte allerdings vollständig, sowohl was den Arbeitseinsatz als auch den emotionalen Zustand der Beschäftigten angeht. Unternehmen und Personalverantwortliche sollten daher die Sinnhaftigkeit von Arbeitsaufgaben klar an ihre Beschäftigten kommunizieren sowie versuchen, auch gescheiterten Projekten eine Sinnhaftigkeit beizumessen.

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When the Meaning of Work Has Disappeared: Experimental Evidence on Employees’ Performance and Emotions

Adrian Chadi Sabrina Jeworrek Vanessa Mertins

in: Management Science, No. 6, 2017


This experiment tests for a causal relationship between the meaning of work and employees’ motivation to perform well. The study builds on an existing employer–employee relationship, adding realism to the ongoing research of task meaning. Owing to an unexpected project cancelation, we are able to study how varying the information provided about the meaning of previously conducted work — without the use of deception, but still maintaining a high level of control — affects subsequent performance. We observe a strong decline in exerted effort when we inform workers about the meaninglessness of a job already done. Our data also suggests that providing a supplemental alternative meaning perfectly compensates for this negative performance effect. Individual characteristics such as reciprocal inclinations and trust prompt different reactions. The data also show that the meaning of work affects workers’ emotions, but we cannot establish a clear relationship between emotional responses and performance.

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