I am doing some digging around about meaning and here is a thought to chew on this new week and year. What if leaders should NOT and CANNOT make work meaningful for others? What if this idea reinforces control, extrinsics, and thereby serves to wreck not build our feelings that our work has meaning?
What if whether our work has meaning comes from deep within each individual and as a result of how we each define our experiences? What would this mean for leaders? What should they be doing differently to help every team member do his or her best work?
This is all a bit existential, I realize. Even so, I believe and see that many of our well-intended efforts to improve our workplaces are based on flawed premises and therefore doomed to fail.
This is an important topic to discuss because we know that meaning is a key measure of satisfaction. People want to know that their work matters. As leaders we should do whatever we can to help our team members thrive. We should not, however, tell them why they ought to find their work meaningful or attempt to define what makes work meaningful, generally speaking. There is no general rule here and doing this would throw water on our employees' flames of interest, engagement, initiative, and internal drive.
Leaders can help affect meaning, however, although not by focusing on meaning.
- Get to know each person and build strong and trusting bonds.
- Catalyze - let your employees pull you into their world and let them lead in it. Be a great follower.
- Take the initiative to offer catalytic (not control oriented) coaching.
- Let jobs morph with change and be open and eager to hear about ideas team members have for how their role ought to be reinvented.
- Know what the concept of a zen moment might look like. Promote "being here now" working habits.
- Allow each employee to get excited about and tuned into the aspects of their work that bring him or her the most satisfaction and fulfillment. We all define "progress" and "accomplishment" differently. As the leader, you get to decide how performance will be judged and rewarded, but you cannot tell people which task means more to them.
- Never let a day go by without letting your team members know how much they mean to you. Be thankful, gracious, and caring. Nurture. No one should doubt that they matter here and to you. No one. Be real about this, too, don't use some schlocky practiced reinforcement schema. Can you say that's transparent?
Example: I was recently in a situation where the client was telling me how important I was to the team. This is nice to hear, but did not improve my feelings that I was doing work that was meaningful. This particular team has the money to spend on consultants and has good intentions. But they have not yet embraced their need for individual and team reinvention for the leadership team. They give praise for my work, but my measure of meaning is that I can catalyze change. It happens a lot, but not yet in this situation. So while I love hearing that I am important to my client, I would give that up to have a more substantive impact on their practices and beliefs. It is a work in progress!
I once had a boss who liked to tell me I was important to the team. But then his actions said the opposite. If he wanted me to feel genuinely cared for, he would have taken the time to understand what drives me, excites me, and makes me want to become immersed. He didn't and didn't guess correctly. He applied what he thought were universal management approaches to his good intention of wanting me to stay with the company and flourish and expand the business. When it comes to meaning, there are no universals.
Start with yourself: You are the designer and implementor of your work experience. You define meaning from your perspective and for your work situation. What brings out the biggest and most engaged you? What can you do to pump up your interest? How will you relish and fully experience what's happening right here and now? Herein lies the true potential for leaders. Going first, discovering the meaning they derive from their daily experiences, talking about the parts of your job that matter most to you, being here now (even when creating a strategic plan, are you being in the room with a group of talents colleagues who are together reinventing the organization).