Compliance Meaningfulness: Hard to Achieve, Easy to Destroy

5 min read


In an article titled, What Makes Work Meaningful- Or Meaningless by Catherine Bailey and Adrian Madden (MIT Sloan Management Review, Summer 2016),  the authors focus upon what makes our work meaningful, with research conducted across multiple industries and responsibilities. While their findings are presented as relevant to the overall workforce, the compliance implications are significant and worthy of discussion.

In sum, meaningful work, which can be “highly motivational, leading to improved performance, commitment and satisfaction” is not easily achieved, and tends to “be intensely personal and individual.” It is not derived entirely from the workplace experience, but is often a part of how employees “see their work and its wider contribution to society in ways that matter to them as individuals.” In other words, it’s related to how an individual views their work as part a greater contribution to society outside the workplace.  However, the opposite is not true- in that meaninglessness, which drives a sense of “futility” in the workplace, is almost entirely derived from the organization and the behavior of its leaders.

So, what are the features of meaningful work? Common characteristics include:

  • Self-Transcendent: Where employees experience their work as “mattering to others more than just to themselves.” In other words, motivation is increased when work is perceived as having impact and relevance “for other individuals, groups, or the wider environment.”
  • Poignant: When work has moments of triumph under difficult circumstances, or having “solved complex, intractable problem(s).” In other words, coping and overcoming obstacles elevates a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment.
  • Reflective: Meaningfulness is not necessarily experienced ‘in the moment’ but comes in retrospect and with “reflection when people were able to see their completed work and make connections between their achievements and a wider sense of life meaning.”
  • Personal: Here a sense of meaning is actualized in the wider context of someone’s “personal life experiences” and “managers and even organizations actually mattered relatively little.”

In sum, as the authors point out, these are “complex and profound” issues which go “far beyond the relative superficialities of satisfaction or engagement- and almost never related to one’s employer or manager.”

The opposite, or meaninglessness, where people might ask themselves “why am I doing this,” is not as complex. It’s almost entirety related to “how people were treated by managers and leaders.” A few of the “seven deadly sins” which I thought as relevant to a global workforce and a compliance program, include:

  • Disconnecting people from their values. This was the greatest single factor from the research, where employees see a tension “between an organizational focus on the bottom line and the individual’s focus on the quality or professionalism of work.”
  • Taking employees for granted. “Lack of recognition for hard work by organizational leaders was frequently cited as invoking a feeling of pointlessness.”
  • Disconnecting people from supportive relationships. Here, “feelings of isolation or marginalization at work were linked with meaninglessness.”

Thus, while the ability to help employees actualize meaningfulness in their work is a not entirely dependent on an organizational and its leaders, meaninglessness is almost completely conditioned on the workplace experience.  So, what are those elements that can be addressed in the workplace that “can foster an integrated sense of holistic meaningfulness for individual employees?” In listing them, I added my own reflections as to what compliance leaders can do to enhance such effectiveness.

Organizational and job focus. Do leaders focus on the “broad purpose of the organization,” and the “positive contribution of the organization to the wider society or environment.” In Blindspots, Bazerman and Tenbrunsel share how compliance programs can contort the decision making process, where decision making is based only on the “costs and benefits of compliance versus noncompliance” without the wider ethical discussion. Thus, are compliance leaders driving the message of how the ethical decision making benefits society at large, and drives economic development, education and welfare on a global basis?

This is a great point which Kristy Grant-Hart makes in How to be A Wildly Effective Compliance Officer. As she shares, compliance efforts and programs provide a valuable contribution to making the world “a more transparent and fair place” and provide a wall against “criminal organizations, gangs, terrorism and violence.” If your workforce doesn’t see how their work is a part of that effort, it’s a huge ‘meaningful’ miss. In other words, as the authors ask, are leaders “encouraging people to see their work as meaningful by demonstrating how jobs fit with the organization’s broader purpose or serve a wider, societal benefit.”

Interactional focus. People find their work more meaningful in an interactional context when “they are in contact with others who benefit from their work” and “in an environment of supportive interpersonal relationships.” In other words, when people see the beneficiaries of their work, that drives a sense of support, and a respectful “climate among colleagues.” Thus, the challenge is to foster those relationships among colleagues, employees, managers, “and between organizational staff and worker beneficiaries.”   Here, compliance leaders have a unique opportunity to “communicate a sense of shared values and belonging” and to engage with the workforce as to how “their work has a positive impact on others.”

Compliance leaders have a unique opportunity to enable employees to find work as a meaningful experience that extends beyond the workplace.  As Kristy shares, compliance is about making “the world a better place” and as such, compliance leaders have an exceptional capacity to really drive meaningfulness into the workplace, one employee at a time, and as a collective group of contributors and beneficiaries.


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Richard Bistrong Vice President

I was the sales and marketing Vice President in the Law Enforcement and Defense sector for over fifteen years, most of which was as VP for International sales. A fourth generation founding family member of one of the world’s premier brands of bullet resistant armor. I got educated in Foreign Policy, UVa, Masters of Arts, 1987. Studied at the Institute for European Studies, Vienna, Austria, 1983.Worked as a Confidential Human Source (CHS) and Cooperating Witness for the United States Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation.Served with the City of London Police, HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) and Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) in a covert and cooperating capacity. Received Immunity from Prosecution from the United Kingdom. Currently, a recognized consultant, blogger, and speaker in the field of anti-bribery compliance, reflecting on front-line issues which impact international business teams and compliance personnel.