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Meaning Making in the Building Business: The Cognitive and Behavioral Processes Architects Use to Make their Work Meaningful. Heather Vough University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign Department of Business Administration 3/31/2007. Roadmap. Research Questions and Definitions

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Meaning Making in the Building Business: The Cognitive and Behavioral Processes Architects Use to Make their Work Meaningful

Heather Vough

University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

Department of Business Administration


  • Research Questions and Definitions
    • Meaning of work, meaningful work, etc
  • Previous Literature
  • Methodology
    • Qualitative Case study of an Architecture firm
  • Findings!!!
  • Discussion and Implications
research questions
Research Questions

General (dissertation):

  • How does the meaning employees find in their work change over their careers?
  • What are the antecedent conditions and consequences of a change of meaning of work?

Focus (presentation):

  • Day to day meaning making- What processes do employees use to experience meaningful work?

How you can help:

  • Any relevant research that you have done or you are aware of
  • Any alternate explanations, storylines, reinterpretations, avenues to explore, different classifications, etc.
defining meaning of work
Defining meaning of work
  • Experienced Meaning of work is:“employees’ overall understandings of the degree to which they are able to connect their self-concepts to the workplace and the evaluations associated with these connections”(Vough, working paper)
    • Self-concept consists of identities and self-esteem(Gecas,1982)
    • Composed of targets and states
  • Work is meaningful when it is perceived to be purposeful and significant(Pratt & Ashforth, 2003)
    • Perceived connection between self and workplace
meaning targets and states





Meaning Targets and States
  • Targets (the content of meaning): tasks, task outcomes, and social interactions
  • States:

Relevance of target to self-concept

High Low

Perceived Resources

For Connection

Low High

previous related processes
Previous Related Processes
  • How employees deal with stigmatized jobs(Ashforth & Kreiner, 1999)
    • Reframing- transforming meaning attached to the profession
    • Recalibrating- adjusting standards of a professional attribute
    • Refocusing- shifting focus away from stigmatized aspect of job
  • How medical residents cope with identity violations (Pratt, Rockmann, & Kauffman, 2006)
    • Enriching- deepened understanding of their professional identity
    • Patching- attaching current identity to pre-existing notions of identity
    • Splinting- using previous identity until current identity was strong enough to adopt
  • How employees actively shape their tasks and relationships (Wrzesniewski & Dutton, 2001)
    • Behavioral crafting- changing the boundaries of the task
    • Relational crafting- changing quality or amount of interaction with others
    • Cognitive crafting- changing how the task is perceived
  • Qualitative Case Study of an Architecture Firm (Yin, 1989)
    • Grounded theory- Iterative process of moving between data collection and analysis (Glaser & Strauss, 1967)
  • Methods: Interviews, Observation, Archives
    • 3 rounds of one-on-one semi-structured interviews
    • Online Reports
      • Monthly online answers to meaning related questions
    • Observed meetings
    • Collected organizational documents
    • Shadowing
setting and informants
Setting and Informants
  • ABS (art, business, science): large firm- 5 offices internationally located
    • Study performed within headquarters (around 200 employees)
      • 3 practice groups (education, healthcare, hospitality)
  • 31 Informants
      • Informants spanned from CEO to new interns
      • 16 were licensed, 15 were not
      • 8 female, 23 male
      • 6 left firm or were reassigned during study
informant distribution
















Informant Distribution

Principals/SVP Licensed/VP’s Associates

Healthcare Education Hospitality

Not including 2 senior managers not affiliated with any practice group

methodology data analysis
Methodology: Data Analysis
  • Transcribed Verbatim
  • Interview Summaries (Miles & Huberman, 1984)
  • Initial coding
    • Provisional (e.g. “social interactions” or “meaninglessness”)
    • Open coding (e.g. “learning” or “mentoring”)
  • Secondary Coding
    • Axial- patterns of codes grouped together
  • Narratives constructed after second interview using all data
findings meaning model
Findings: Meaning Model
  • Antecedents
  • Individual
  • Process or end focused
  • Personal or social focused
  • Self-esteem/confidence
  • Understanding of
  • profession/firm
  • Appropriate
  • Training
  • Experience
  • Task
  • Project type
  • Project phase
  • Comprehension of involvement
  • Opportunity for self-expression
    • Creative opportunity
    • Problem-solving
    • Learning/growth/challenge
  • Project variety
  • Organizational
  • Values and Ideals
  • Size
  • Supervisors
  • Quality peer relationships
  • Feedback/recognition/money
  • Clear communication


  • Sense of self
  • Sense of Competence
  • Sense of Contribution
    • Project
    • Others
  • Self-Engagement
  • Ownership
  • Accomplishment
  • Emotional
  • investment

Meaning-Making Processes

  • Outcomes
  • Performance
  • Motivation
  • Satisfaction

Bold= job characteristics model

findings meaning making processes





Findings: Meaning- Making Processes
  • Meaning Making
    • Substituting- replacing one meaning with another
      • Lateral
      • External
      • Temporal
    • Expanding- looking at tasks from different perspective
    • Enabling- reorganizing relationship to task
      • Goal creating
      • Voicing
      • Turning over
findings substituting
Findings: Substituting
  • Substituting Processes-replacing one meaning with another
    • Lateral-make up for missing connection with something else in work

“I want to make an impact. And maybe if I didn’t get the opportunity, I would have to reevaluate. Maybe this impact could be done other ways. Just like helping other people around me. You know, there’s meaning in that. I guess I would just have to reevaluate, how can I achieve this impact on other folks?” (Senior Associate 18, 1)*.

* (Informant position, identifying number, wave of data collection)

substituting examples
Substituting Examples
  • External-replacing missing meaning with similar meaning outside of work

“I also do a lot of side work too. I do pro bono work for [the city’s] public schools. This I do on my own. ABS really doesn’t know about it. I do that on my own to just kind of stimulate my own need for designing and being creative on a different level” (Associate 20, 1).

  • Temporal-look for something you do not have now in future

“I’ve done housing and stuff like that, but I wasn’t exposed to big commercial jobs and stuff like that. I looked at it as an opportunity to just learn… look at other people’s drawings and just sort of be a sponge for a while” (Senior Vice President 22, 1).

findings expanding
Findings: Expanding
  • Expanding Processes- employees look beyond immediate task for meaning ( be able to put things into a larger context such as how each part fits into the greater whole)

“You know I think most of the time you’re focusing on the task that you have to do today. ..You kind of have to focus yourself on the big picture from time to time cause you can lose track of that” (Vice President 60, 2).

“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 its 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).

findings enabling
Findings: Enabling
  • Enabling Processes- changing your perspective on the task
    • Goal Creating-set objective and 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 time than 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).

enabling examples
Enabling Examples
  • Voicing-talking with management about how to get desired opportunities

“Your destiny is whatever you choose it to be. If I knew that I would have to stay and build condos for like the next five years, I’d obviously speak up about it. I would speak up about it. And they’re very accommodating here too” (Intern 68, 1).

  • Turning over-leaving firm in order to get desired opportunities

(discussing being given “secretarial” tasks to do) “When it goes on and on and on and you’re never learning anything, you know how are you ever supposed to do what they need you to do? So if I see something like that emerging, I’ll kind of like go have a talk with [management] and give them a chance to do something else. And if it doesn’t happen, then I usually move on” (Associate 25, 1).And she did…

meaning neutral processes
Meaning neutral processes
  • Process that did not increase or decrease the amount of meaningfulness in work:
  • Avoiding- actively avoid doing tasks and being put in situations that are not valued

“I’m good at it, but I don’t like it. So I delegate management. I’ll pick the most capable management person on my team and have them do the management…but I’ll set it up and I’ll run away from the vicious bunny” (Principal 23, 1).

  • Assessing-figuring out strengths and weaknesses to proceed

“Just recently I’ve gone through my own personal exercise of figuring out these strengths I have and maybe I can use them. That’s just my confidence. If I know I’m really good at something, and it doesn’t happen to be nuts and bolts, then maybe that’s okay. I can use those to find that niche. So yeah, I’m getting there. I’ve just got to figure it out, I’ve got to write them down, evaluate” (Senior Associate 18, 2).

meaning losing processes
Meaning Losing Processes
  • Accepting-recognizing that current situation is characteristics of profession/firm

“I think it’s a slow realitization that is probably a combination of age and maturity and not one specific thing other than at some point recognizing I had a lousy day today, I really hated it. And other days its hey I had fun today you know, I enjoyed what I was doing today. Its just balancing those two I think. … its just something you have to come to terms with, in terms of there’s always going to be days where you love what you’re doing, there’s always days when you’ll hate it” (Senior Vice President 30, 3).

“Knowing that you’ve been through that before, you know. And it always comes back up. . . I think that you just know that there’s going to be sort of the up and down… knowing that you’ve been through those sort of lulls and ups, knowing that ultimately something is going to get you going again. Pretty normal human nature I think, to get into a duldrum” (Senior Vice President 22, 1).

meaning losing processes20
Meaning Losing Processes
  • Obligating-doing work not because it is related to self but because others expect it

“You gotta do it, I mean its still a job. You gotta do what you gotta do. Make it the best you can. You’ve gotta struggle sometimes” (Principal 23, 3).

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).

meaning losing processes21
Meaning Losing Processes
  • Minimizing-decrease of the importance placed on work in general

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).

“Part of me is actually thinking how architecture fits into my life is maybe not a big part of it, as it is now. I’m getting to the point now where I think I could make that decision” (Associate 33, 3).

meaning losing processes22
Meaning Losing Processes
  • Suppressing-distance self from aspects of work that are unavailable

“There are projects that I will certainly try to do good work on but I will not be emotionally invested in them because I know there’s a dissatisfaction quotient out there, either in the manager or something else” (Principal 23, 1).

“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).

  • Meaningfulness arises from feeling good about the work that you do and from feeling that your work matters to the project or other people.
  • Employees use cognitive and behavioral processes to experience their work as meaningful.
  • There are sometimes obstacles that prevent the experience of meaningful work. Employees use certain processes to deal with this as well.
still to come
Still to come…
  • Social aspects of meaning
    • Role of social interactions/relationships as source of meaningfulness
    • Role of social cues as antecedents/ influencers of meaning
    • Role of social comparisons
  • Meaning escalation/meaning as a moving target
  • Networks of meaning- interconnectedness of sources of meaning
discussion implications
  • A greater understanding of the “how?” of meaning making (and losing)
  • Employees actively find ways to make work meaningful
    • Meaning making is not something that is done to a person
  • Integrates some of the meaning of work, motivation and work design literature
  • Meaning is a dynamic and on-going process, best understood as it unfolds.
  • It may be just as important for managers to help employees reframe how they view their work as it is to actually change the nature of the work.
meaning of work defined
Meaning of Work Defined

- Number of meaningful targets

- Relative weight of meaningful


- Number of alienated targets




States of Meaning

Overall Experience


Meaning of Work




Targets of Meaning



Task Outcomes

Social Environment