I must have hundreds of books in my library in and around the subject of meaning (semantics, semiotics, cognitive linguistics, philosophy of language), only a small subset of which are explicitly about “meaning at work”:
In most of these books, “meaning” is a synonym for “significance” – they describe ways of creating an environment in which work connects with people’s inner sense of purpose and identity. While I’m all for this, I don’t see how it’s possible if you don’t solve the more basic problem of meaning, which is that people don’t know what each other mean. To paraphrase Macbeth, meetings at work are filled with sound (and occasional fury), but signify very little.
Is meaning at work?
Next time you hear someone talking about “meaning at work”, try rephrasing it as a question: “Is meaning at work?” And if the answer is no, then have a go at putting meaning “to work” in your day to day interactions and meetings – tell a story, scribble something on a whiteboard, ask whoever’s speaking for an example of what they mean, draw attention to and expand upon metaphors as they arise, ask for clarification when someone uses jargon you’re not familiar with, ask who has a different experience that they could share, and if the conversation seems to be going round in circles then figure out what everyone has in common that they do understand and care about, reframe the meeting in those terms and start over.
Meaning is not passive – it’s something you can choose to create, by the way you choose to behave. This may not seem like rocket science, but I sincerely believe things could be so much better if we started seeing meaning as a real, tangible, embodied sensation, as a tool that can be put to work, instead of a passive, ethereal, cultural ambiance.