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BYU researcher finds meaningful work often requires sacrifices

To do what you love and get paid for it sounds like a dream job — right? A new study by a Brigham Young University public management professor found that landing your dream job might not be the walk in the park you picture. It’s probably more like a day at the zoo, and that’s not necessarily all good.

“It’s a wonderful thing to believe so passionately in your work,” said study author Jeff Thompson, assistant professor at the BYU Romney Institute of Public Management. “But at any organization with a strong set of values, feeling that your work is a calling can complicate things.”

Some of those complications include physically demanding, uncomfortable and dangerous work, sacrifices of personal time, a sense of moral duty and a low salary.

On the other hand, the study found those who view work as a “calling” benefit by being more satisfied with their work and find meaning and identification in their occupation.

The research, “The Call of the Wild: Zookeepers, Callings, and the Double-edged Sword of Deeply Meaningful Work,” appeared in the March 2009 edition of Administrative Science Quarterly.

Thompson and co-author J. Stuart Bunderson, an associate professor of organizational behavior at Washington University in St. Louis and Marriott School alumnus, studied zookeepers because the sense of calling to their work is very pronounced. With a low salary and limited opportunity for career advancement, it really is about the love of the job for most zookeepers.

In addition to zookeepers, there are many professions that ask for significant sacrifices in order for people to do what they love.

“One alarming finding is that that there is the significant, persistent negative relationship between sense of calling and salary,” Thompson said. “It could be that managers pay you less if you feel called to the job because they know you won’t quit.”

And from management’s standpoint, those who identify strongly with their work may be harder to oversee. Those with a calling have high expectations for their organization because they believe so passionately in the cause. So sense of calling can both strengthen and complicate the relationships between employees and managers.

“They may become a thorn in management’s side,” Thompson said. “They tend to view the organization through a moral lens. When they disagree with what management is doing, they don’t just feel disappointed. They feel moral outrage.”

For the same reasons, the research found that those with meaningful work are less flexible to change. They also identify strongly with fellow colleagues because they feel they have the same hardwiring for the job, but when issues arise they become more critical of co-workers. Yet these burdens and benefits aren’t just at the zoo. The authors say the same can be applied to any career.

“I think you can find people with a sense of calling in just about any work setting,” Bunderson says. “It is true that some occupations lend themselves more easily to a sense of calling than others. Ultimately calling has more to do with conviction than with context.”

Thompson says it’s important to understand what gives employees a sense of calling so you can harness it for good. The study identified that people who see work as a calling have a very deep, even profound sense of meaningfulness. They know that what they do matters and they feel a very strong sense of belonging and identity. They see their work as an offering — as something sacred, but not without sacrifice.

“A key message from our research is that you can’t think of meaningful work as simply another employee benefit — like a retirement fund or a good health plan,” Bunderson said. “No matter how you slice it, you can’t get the benefit without the burden; you can’t have truly meaningful work without assuming real responsibility.”

For this and other Marriott School news releases, visit the online newsroom at marriottschool.byu.edu/news.

Writer: Christine Frandsen

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