heather vough mcgill university l.
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Heather Vough McGill University. Framing a Story of Meaning Construction in the Architecture Industry. Terminology Method Findings Framing * this is where I need help!. Agenda of a backwards presentation.

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Framing a Story of Meaning Construction in the Architecture Industry

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agenda of a backwards presentation


  • Method
  • Findings
  • Framing

* this is where I need help!

Agenda of a backwards presentation

“I think meaning comes from ourselves, what level of importance we attach to something. Here’s an outrageous example: on Big Project doing the door hardware was huge, it was really meaningful, somebody had to do it and I did it… I’m going to make it important because I have ten thousand doors to do. So you can make it meaningful.Somebody who is doing toilet details: you’ve gotta assign some level of meaning to it, otherwise you’re just a robot” (Senior Vice President in Architecture Firm).


Meaning of Work: The degree of connection between one’s self-concept and elements of the work context that can potentially provide significance, purpose and fulfilment to the employee (Baumeister & Vohs, 2002; Pratt & Ashforth, 2003; Vough, 2006).

  • Meaningfulness: “The degree to which the individual experiences the job as one which is generally meaningful, valuable, and worthwhile”(Hackman & Oldham, 1976: 256)
      • Findings here: Meaningfulness through competence and contribution
research questions

How do employees construct/reconstruct the meaning of their work?

What are common obstacles that prompt the meaning-construction process?

Research Questions

Qualitative Case Study of an Architecture Firm(Yin, 1989)

    • Grounded theory- Iterative process of moving between data collection and analysis(Glaser & Strauss, 1967)
  • Firm: ABS (Art, Business, Science):
    • Large firm- 5 offices internationally located
    • Study performed within headquarters (around 200 employees)
      • 3 architecture practice groups (education, healthcare, hospitality)
  • 31 Informants
      • Informants spanned from CEO to new interns
      • 15 were licensed, 16 were not
      • 8 female, 23 male
      • 6 left firm or were reassigned during study

Interviews (Spradley, 1979)

    • 3 rounds of one-on-one semi-structured interviews
    • 89 interviews in total; Questions evolved with findings
  • Online Reports (Wheeler & Reis, 1991)
    • Informants were sent 6 links to online survey
    • Average 3.1 responses
  • Overt, Non-Participant Observation (Marshall & Rossman, 1989; Whyte, 1979)
    • Organization and department wide meetings
    • Shadowed two informants (one senior, one junior)
  • Organizational Documents (Jick, 1979)
    • Mission Statement
    • Marketing Documents
    • Organizational Survey
theoretical model of meaning making at work
Theoretical Model of Meaning-Making at Work



  • Connecting
  • Expanding
  • Narrowing
  • Imposing Goals and Rewards
  • Reapplying
  • Substituting
  • Triggers
  • Boredom
  • Inappropriate task
  • Disorientation
  • Distraction

Potential for


Turnover or

Turnover Intentions



  • Disconnecting
  • Suppressing
  • Obligating
  • Minimizing



triggers to meaning making

Boring/unchallenging work

    • “If I’m given a bunch of stuff to draw or whatever, that’s not too exciting, ‘cause I already know how to do that and it’s just kind of like the labor of work. I liked to be challenged and offered new experienceof things” (Associate 25, 1) *.
  • Inappropriate work
    • “I feel like an administrative assistant when I’m trying to be an architect” (Associate 20, OR1).
  • Superficial work
    • “If you’re constantly shuffling around from project to project and you can’t really sink your teeth into anything, can’t really get into the work and what it is you’re doing, it’s going to be less meaningfulthan if it’s something you can take ownership of” (Vice President 60, 1).
  • Distracting work
    • “So if I’m working on something and then a client calls, I pick up the phone- that distracts me from the task I was doing. And then I have to shift and then shift and making a shift four times, maybe 20 times a day, is hard” (Senior Associate 99, 1).
    • * (Informant position, identifying number, source/wave of data collection)
Triggers to Meaning-Making
findings connecting

“Maybe you like hate the design or it’s not a great project or you hate working on the project, you still have to find something for yourself that you enjoy doing or else you wouldn’t be here. And for me, being young, a big part of that would be just the learning experience. And knowing that in the future, I’ll be all the better for it. I’ll be that much more experienced and hopefully that will make the design, my design, better” (Associate 86, 1).

Findings: Connecting
examples expanding

Big picture-focusing on impact of work on project or other people

    • “There’s obviously times when you know you kind of wonder- Why am I doing this? Why am I doing this? But I think the big picture is just the outcome that you see at the end. I think it’s just like with anything, there’s obviously some joy when you see the building get built and the people come to use it for what it was intended to be” (Senior Associate 11, 1).
  • Future self focus-emphasize how work one is currently doing will help in the future
    • Interviewer: “Would you consider doing the paperwork less significant to you?”
    • Informant: “No, cause I understand how important it is and how, especially at this stage of my career…I’m glad I’m able to do it to learn. At least that’s what I tell myself. So I wouldn’t say it’s less significant, it’s less fun, it’s less glamorous” (Senior Associate, 93, 1).
Examples: Expanding

Imposing-Goals-setting performance criteria in order to make work more meaningful

    • (referring to times when he is assigned a “dumb” task) “Meaningful work would be if someone’d give me a task or job whatever and I was able to accomplish it in even faster record timethan I had before” (Associate 87, 2).
    • (discussing copies he had made for a presentation)“It was very important to me that, well I guess pride had to do with it. I take a lot of pride in making sure that things are done right” (Senior Associate 18, 1).
  • Reapplying-taking one source of meaningfulness in one context and applying it to another
    • “You don’t always want to deal with the billing, but I know you have to do it. I guess I’ve tried to make it as creative as possible in terms of when you’re asked to do some sort of manpower project or billing, make a cool looking spreadsheet so at least there’s a design aspect to it. At the end of the day it makes you feel like its not just grinding a bunch of numbers” (Senior Vice President 22, 3).
findings meaninglessness making

Informant: “I’m bored when I feel like I’m doing something really stupid and useless. That really bothers me.”

Interviewer: “What do you tell yourself to get through it?”

Informant: “Just they’re paying me, I gotta do it. Do what they say. I mean it’s true you know. You can either quit or you have to do it” (Associate 25, 2)

Findings: Meaninglessness-Making

Suppressing-distance self from aspects of work that are unavailable

    • “I don’t know if you ever look at banks, but Harris banks are really cool. I’d love to do that, and do that whole idea of a bank to a medical office building. But I don’t think this client would do that so I’m not really worried about it cause I don’t think I’m going to be able to go that way”(Associate 87, 1)
  • Obligating-doing work because others expect it, not because it is related to self
    • Interviewer: “Can you describe a time when you thought your work was pointless? Less significant to you?”
    • Informant: “Yeah I guess when you’re doing work for someone else that you know they haven’t really thought out any of the consequences of why they’ve asked you to do a particular thing and you do it anyways because they are your boss or whatever and you just do it because you have to” (Associate 86, 1).

Minimizing-decrease importance of work in general to self

    • Interviewer: “Have you ever had to struggle to figure out how your work had meaning to you?”
    • Informant: “Maybe. And maybe those are the times where I just tell myself this is a job, it’s a job. Just like anything else is a job”(Associate 86, 3).

Well, let me just start by telling you what’s not meaningful. Working on a prototype police station for nine years and you build the same building and it looks the same over and over again, that’s not very meaningful you know. And the client is constantly changing, people are getting dismissed, new administration is being brought it, you know. And they’re never very appreciative of anything you do, no matter how hard you work, so that’s not very meaningful. (Eddie, Vice President, 3)


What I spend most of my time doing is reporting back on financial things, I’m looking at acquisitions of people and firms and I’m looking at opportunities for the global organization, but I’m not impacting the world. You know what I mean, it’s just impacting the firm. So I’m not, I can’t point to things and say you know there’s a project I did, I still talk about the stuff I did twenty years ago, and so there’s a little frustration there. (51, 2)


Obviously the job I had, I mean I knew it had meaning to somebody, but it had no meaning to me. That was my frustration. And I know it was absolutely a critical piece for a bank or for a lender to get my report every month and hear what I had to say about somebody else’s work but for my own edification, I don’t know if that’s the right word, it was kinda, I struggled with it and that’s why I left. (Frank, Senior Vice President, 3)


I can’t remember who I was talking to about it, and I said, ‘Well I’m not learning anything, it’s a bad project, and the guys a jerk.’ And they were like, ‘Wow you’re 0 for 3.’ And I was like, ‘I’m not getting anything I want out of this project.’ That was when I was kind of like wow, gotta move on. Either to another project or, if they’re not willing to do that, I was kind of going to start looking [for another job]. (Elizabeth, Associate, 2)

the challenge framing

Potential Framing “hooks”:

    • Meaning in mundane, everyday situations
      • In contrast to research on meaning-making in extreme experiences (stress and coping/sensemaking), stigmatized work (“dirty work”) or role transitions
    • No job is perfect
      • Employees have to learn to cope with down times in work
    • Everyday issues can influence turnover
      • Not always a “shock” (Mitchell…)
The Challenge: Framing
the challenge framing21

Professions (and the socialization process into professions) do not constitute meaning

    • Employees must construct it on their own
  • A study of cognitive job crafting
    • The processes employees use to change their perspectives on their work to make them seem meaningful (or meaningless)
  • The role of “self-talk”
  • People are increasingly looking for meaning in work, because traditional sources of meaning are “losing their grip”
The Challenge: Framing