Monday, May 14, 2012

How Leaders Kill Meaning at Work

By Virgil Carter
As your organization’s chief executive, you probably think you know what’s important—what’s Job One.  And you probably do.  But do you know what may just as important as Job One?  “Call it Job One-B”, write authors Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer.  In their article, “How Leaders Kill Meaning at Work”, published in a recent McKinsey Quarterly edition, the authors suggest that “enabling the ongoing engagement and everyday progress of the people in the trenches of your organization…” is a key to helping your staff to make progress in meaningful work.  This, they say, is the single most important event that can deeply engage people in their jobs.

 The two authors point out that the first fundamental requirement for employee job satisfactions is “that the work be meaningful to the people doing it”.  They go on to note that people are more creative, productive, committed and collegial in their jobs when they have positive inner work lives.  This positively affects the bottom line of the organization as well.

A sense of purpose in the work and consistent action to reinforce it, “has to come from the top”, not just frontline supervisors, Amabile and Kramer write.  They describe four traps that lie in wait for senior executives; traps that drain the meaning from the work of the people in their organizations.

 Mediocrity Signals:  Most non-profit organizations have a lofty purpose and mission that aspires to greatness.  But are you inadvertently signaling the opposite through your words and actions?  Despite executive rhetoric about being innovative and “the gold standard”, is your organization consumed with being ordinary?  Does your staff feel they are doing mediocre work for mediocre reasons? 

Strategic “Attention Deficit Disorder”:  Monitoring an organization’s external environment in order to make strategic moves is a common trait of senior executives.  Thinking about where the organization should go next is an important responsibility.  But does your organization start and abandon initiatives so frequently that employees neither understand the initiatives, nor have sufficient time for execution to determine whether the initiatives are working?  Does each year bring in a new themed strategy?

Corporate Keystone Kops:  Early silent film movies depicted the Keystone Kops, who were fictional policemen so incompetent that they ran around in circles, mistakenly bashed one another and fumbled one case after another.  Many senior executives who think everything is running smoothly in their organizations may be completely unaware that they preside over their own version of the Keystone Kops.  When coordination and support are absent within an organization, people may lose their sense of purpose and stop believing that they can produce something of high quality.

Misbegotten “Big, Hairy, Audacious Goals”:  Management researchers Jim Collins and Jerry Porras have written of the value to organizations of developing “big, hairy, audacious goals (BHAG), as a bold strategic vision statement which has powerful emotional appeal.  It’s possible, however, that the BHAGs are grandiose, containing little relevance or meaning for people in the trenches.  They can be so extreme as to seem unattainable and so vague as to seem pointless.  The result may be rising employee cynicism and plummeting productivity.

 The writers conclude their article by noting, “As an executive, you are in a better position than anyone to identify and articulate the higher purpose of what people do within your organization.  Make that purpose real, support its achievement through consistent everyday actions, and you will create the meaning that motivates people toward greatness.  Along the way, you may find greater meaning in your own work as a leader.”

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