26 Mar 2012
Making Work Meaningful
ON-Brand CEO Paul Stewart says “The problem with strategy is not in the thinking but the doing” reflecting that the reason why strategy so often fails is not because it is bad strategy but because the people charged with delivering it, don’t know it exists, just don’t get it in context of their role, or it has no meaning to them to warrant giving their best.
But shouldn’t we all just get on and do what we are employed to do regardless of it’s meaning? Do the hours, take the cheque and be satisfied that the mortgage can be paid again this month? I guess that’s what many leaders hope for but, as a recent McKinsey article points out, we are all human with “a constant flow of emotions, motivations and perceptions” that influence how we behave at work and therefore what we achieve. It’s actually very hard for us to ‘do the doing’ well (i.e. execute strategy) if it doesn’t make sense or have real meaning to us. Meaning or a ‘purpose’ in life is critical to all of us – just ask anyone who’s going through their twentieth mid-life crisis. Whether its to make as much money as possible or to make the world a better place in some way – it doesn’t matter – we all seek meaning around that thing we spend most of our life doing – work.
The question of ‘meaning’ is explored in a McKinsey article titled How leaders kill meaning at work which looks at how many leaders actually undermine creativity, productivity and commitment of their staff leaving them wondering why they even bother.
When discussing the outcomes identified in their book ‘The Progress Principle’, the authors say that “of all the events that can deeply engage people in their jobs, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work”
I wrote about this point in my blog A new focus – let’s be brilliant together when it was “reinforced to me not so long back when I saw a client video where a staff member has just realised that he was not just an ‘IT person’ but had a significant role in helping to look after the financial welfare of their six million customers. I’m sure this guy has much more fire in his belly now. We can also look to the story of the cleaner at NASA who, when asked what he did, said he “helped put a man on the moon”. Now thats something meaningful to be proud of and work hard for, way beyond making the floors shiny.”
Connecting all staff into the higher purpose of the organisation is critical, if you want them to give their best. And while all organisations must make a good profit, I’m sure that particular purpose is not the one that most staff buy into. That purpose relates to more emotional dimensions like helping customers, protecting customers, make things easier for customers.
The article investigates the Four Traps that leaders can fall into. I recognised every one of them in leaders I have worked for in the past. The Traps are
- Mediocrity signals – are leaders signalling that mediocrity is OK. If so, that’s what they will get.
- Strategic ‘attention deficit disorder’ – the starting and abandoning of initiatives for little reason. The term flavour of the month comes to mind here.
- Corporate Keystone Cops – Failing to act, lack of coordination contradicting each other, providing ambiguous information. Sound familiar?
- Misbegotten ‘big hairy audacious goals‘ – goals that are so grandiose they have little meaning to those expected to achieve them or so internally focused they forget the all important customer!
All these things prevent people from “believing they can produce something of high quality” - something meaningful. So its up to leaders to lead the way and provide clarity and meaning to staff if they want them to perform. (i.e. How does my role contribute to something of purpose?). And Amabile and Kramer are so right when they say that Senior Leaders need to be aware that even their “smallest actions pack a wallop because what you say and do is intensely observed by people down the line.” I think all leaders have been ‘down the line’ themselves and know exactly what they mean.
Read the full McKinsey article How leaders kill meaning at work here. To access the full article (and loads of others) you will need to register on their site. It’s free and quick to do.
We’re pleased to share this guest post from Grant Costello, Head of Community Development at ON-Brand Partners, a New Zealand based international consulting firm focused on connecting people and strategy for better performance. Grant and ON-Brand Partners are part of our global network of people and organisations working to make the world a better (work) place. They are also the creators of TakeON!
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