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Management and Making Meaning: Crossing Over

by | Sep 15, 2016 | Brand Management, Business Strategy & Process, Leadership & Management

From time to time, team members will share their views stimulated from a piece by an industry thought leader. Here, our CEO, Lisa Maier, discusses the MITSloan Management Review article by Catherine Bailey and Adrian Madden,“ The Five Qualities of Meaningful Work”.

My roots are in sociology, specifically the sociology of the workplace, and in phenomenology, which includes the exploration of how we make meaning. It is no wonder that I gravitate toward the building of an organization that seeks to be more than an arm’s length transaction for all who engage.

Here at DirectiveGroup, we talk about our culture a lot, not just the construction of our culture, but what kind of culture we want to build. To me, work is not really engaging unless it fulfills another deep human need, and that need it to live a meaningful life. I believe that is something we all want, and it certainly seems to be true about the folks that choose to be here. And, we are very close to concretizing the characteristics of those who come here and feel like it’s a good fit, which will help us help people to effectively evaluate us during the hiring process and vice versa.

So, it was with great interest that I happened upon this article that discusses some qualitative research about how and why people find work meaningful. According to the authors, meaningfulness has been shown to be more important to employees than any other aspect of work. I buy into Maslow’s Hierarchy, so I am not so sure about that assertion, but I do agree – nonetheless – that it is up there in importance.

The bottom line of this article is this surprising conclusion: Managers don’t make meaning, but they are the number one cause of the destruction of it. Whoa! So here’s the summary with some comments and thoughts from yours truly.

What makes work meaningful:

  • Self-Transcendent – work that matters to others, maybe even more than just to ourselves… the impact or relevance of what we are doing on or for others.
  • Poignant – can be a mixture of painful or uncomfortable feelings, and in this way is quite different from the teachings of ‘positive’ psychology.
  • Episodic – the sense of meaningfulness arises and then fades away, so it is not always present. These episodes become symbolic in our minds of the meaningfulness of our work.
  • Reflective – rarely experienced right in the moment, but instead in retrospect. Reminds me of the ‘flow’ state in which you are totally present, so it is not till later that you realized what happened.
  • Personal – our meaningful work experiences encompass our whole beings, not just our ‘employee’ selves.

Now, here’s how managers can and do systematically destroy the creation of meaningfulness at work. The authors refer to these as the Seven Deadly Sins:

  • Disconnect people from their values. Interestingly a focus on cost-savings, alone, without the corresponding focus on value-creation or value-maintenance, can trigger this sense.
  • Take employees for granted, creating feelings of being unrecognized, unacknowledged and unappreciated.
  • Give people pointless work to do… what is doesn’t match our sense of what should be.
  • Treat people unfairly. Truly an organization killer that can be avoided.
  • Override people’s better judgment, creating a sense of disempowerment or disenfranchisement.
  • Disconnect people from supportive relationships, so there is a sense of feeling isolated or marginalized.
  • Put people at unnecessary risk of physical or emotional harm.

What is really nice about this work is that it goes on to address how a manager could also systematically create an environment where meaningfulness in work can be cultivated.

They suggest that a focus on any one of these four elements is a great start, but that to truly imbibe the culture, it would be best to try to create the conditions for all four to flourish:

  1. Organizational Meaningfulness: help employees understand the broad purpose of the organization, such as what the organization aims to contribute. This is not done lightly if it is to truly create a touchstone for the company. At DirectiveGroup, we are very focused on articulating our ‘why’ – or our very purpose for existence, which we believe will be central to our future.
  2. Job Meaningfulness: employees should be able to connect their jobs to the company contribution or to larger societal needs. Remember that challenges, zigzags to goal attainment, and thorny problems to solve, are all part of the basis for poignancy.
  3. Task Meaningfulness: we have to make sure at least some tasks are candidates for meaningfulness or that after a period of apprenticeship that leads to mastery, there is an opportunity for meaningful tasks within the set of what must get done.
  4. Interactional Meaningfulness: this includes both coming in contact with those who benefit from your work and with those who work alongside you to create meaning.

Together, these four elements create the space for holistic meaningfulness, where each element supports or facilitates the other.

What is great about this article and these concepts is that it gives us a way to think about meaningfulness in more concrete and actionable ways. And, it points us to the North Star we are all seeking, what Maslow calls the pinnacle of his hierarchy: self-transcendence, moving us, as individuals, to a higher level that connects us to all humanity, and therefore embeds meaningful work into a meaningful life.


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