Breakroom Shmoozing

A few minutes of social time may cultivate meaning at work

Think of the last place you worked at that you found to be engaging, satisfying, and enjoyable. Next, think of the reasons why you enjoyed your work, and perhaps the factors that kept you at your organization. It is likely that in some way, those reasons involve relationships you had with colleagues in your workplace. In exploring these connections to others in the workplace, it is clear that high quality relationships at work serve various functions and can lead to a multitude of positive outcomes. I wonder, then, what role relationships play in finding meaning at work, particularly in an age in which we are socially defining ourselves by our work? If we want to find more meaning at work, perhaps fostering relationships is a good first step! Could shmoozing and socializing, then, be a good thing?

According to Baumeister and Vohs, the essence of meaning is connection, or a way of linking separate entities (2002). Not only is meaning something that is shared, but it is also a way of imposing stability on life, and we desire this sense of stability amidst our ever-changing environments. Meaning has also been found to be a prerequisite to happiness in addition to a way of coping with suffering, rebuilding a sense of control, and strengthening our sense of self-worth. Furthermore, there are distinct needs for meaning. The first is the need for purpose through goals and fulfillments, followed by the need for values through a sense of goodness and positivity. Next is the need for self-efficacy through the belief that one can make a difference, and lastly is the need for a basis for self-worth, both individually and collectively (Baumeister & Vohs, 2002).

In the context of the workplace, then, we can particularly see the potential for high quality relationships to satisfy the need for a basis for self-worth because relationships allow us to establish a strong sense of identity in a way that affirms our self-worth (Purvanova, 2013). Self-verification theory informs this idea by highlighting one of our most basic needs as the need to be understood and acknowledged, which in turn motivates us to interact with other people. This suggests that the motivation behind our relationships is to gain support for our views of self and that, in our attempt to confirm these views, we either actively provide information about ourselves to others, or we passively behave in ways we know will be confirmed by others (Purvanova, 2013).

In this way, through socializing and building workplace relationships, we are able to further develop our professional identities and align our self-views and others’ views of us. This, in turn, supports us in contributing to our organizations because we feel more enabled to act authentically. In fact, Ashforth and Kreiner see this socialization process as necessary for the formation of securing and sustaining a strong workgroup culture based on shared values and beliefs, ultimately leading to high occupational prestige and pride (1999). The consequent ability to find positive meaning and affirmation leads to stronger work role identification where our self-definitions are grounded in the perceptions of those we work with. Ultimately, then, organizations should encourage socialization and provide opportunities for their employees to interact with each other (Ashforth & Kreiner, 1999).

By fostering an environment in which these high quality relationships can flourish, organizations can expect to have more engaged employees who find meaning at work along with a stronger sense of self-worth. So, next time you see two colleagues shmoozing in the breakroom, recognize that although they may not be “working,” they are engaging in a process of cultivating a connection that has meaning in and of itself.


Ashforth. B. & Kreiner, G. (1999). How can you do it?: dirty work and the challenge of constructing a positive identity. Academy of Management Review. pg. 413-434.

Baumeister, R. F., & Vohs, K. D. (2002). The pursuit of meaningfulness in life. In C. R. Snyder & S.J. Lopez (Eds.), The Handbook of Positive Psychology. New York: Oxford University Press.

Purvanova, R. (2013). The role of feeling known for team member outcomes in project teams. Small Group Research, 298-331.