Doctor with patient
Wednesday, September 16, 2020

For some workers, a job is a calling; a part of their identity that directs how they live their lives and goes far beyond just paying the bills.

A new study from researchers at the University of Iowa’s Tippie College of Business delves into the minds of those who see their work as a calling and how they came to seek meaning through their jobs.

Amy Colbert, professor of management and entrepreneurship, says that people have sought meaning from their work for centuries, first seeing their work as a calling from God to serve others, a sense that changed in recent years as society became more secular. In the study, Colbert was part of a research team that interviewed 241 workers in caregiving professions often associated with a calling —international aid workers, physicians, teachers, and Christian ministers—and interviewed them about their lives and their work.

The researchers found that workers who feel called felt that calling in two ways. One group felt destined for their positions and worked their lives toward that goal. A physician whose mother was a nurse, for instance, felt a career in health care was preordained. Or a teacher who from her earliest age always saw herself at the front of the classroom teaching others.

The other group—the explorers—took a more meandering route, almost stumbling into their calling by working a job they were able to infuse with meaning and purpose. The doctor who didn’t feel like he was doing the right kind of work so he quit and became a pastor, for example. Or the person who started working at a women’s shelter as a fluke and was so inspired by helping others she became a professional aid worker.

“Their awareness that they had discovered their callings emerged more gradually until they eventually chose work they loved,” Colbert says.

She says the study shows that meaning and competence are also not always one and the same. Many of the people her research team interviewed were very good at a job but found it lacked meaning. Not until they left and found another line of work that had the sense of purpose did they feel a sense of calling, such as the doctor-turned-pastor.

“They leave because they feel like there’s something missing, that it didn’t align with their values and didn’t help others,” she says. “We found that people who feel a calling are more apt to work jobs that are much more other-centered.”

Colbert says employers who hire workers who feel called see tangible benefits, as those workers tend to be more bought-in to their jobs and are often more productive. Colbert says managers can foster this sense in those who feel called—and even those who don’t—by allowing employees to do their jobs in their own unique way, instead of taking a cookie cutter, formally structured approach.

“That gives individuals the chance to find deeper meaning in their work, when they’re allowed to bring a part of themselves to the way they do their jobs,” she says.

The study, “Stories of Calling: How Called Professionals Construct Narrative Identities,” was co-authored by Matt Bloom of the University of Notre Dame and Jordan Nielsen of Purdue University and was published in the journal Administrative Science Quarterly.

Media contact: Tom Snee, tom-snee@uiowa.edu, 319-541-8434