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Killing Meaning at Work — What Leaders Shouldn’t Do

The McKinsey Quarterly is full of rich material for coaches.

In their most recent quarterly review, they published an article entitled “How Leaders Kill Meaning at Work.”  This appeared at the same time I read remarks from Bob Moritz, PwC‘s U.S. Chairman and Senior Partner, which are supportive of a strong, competent and content workforce of highly intelligent and determined individuals.  While Mr. Moritz said: “In addition to having the necessary technical skills, it’s important to possess the ability to confidently communicate those skills and talent. What I tell students on campus is that I look for people who have developed their ‘4 Q’s’ — IQ, EQ (emotional quotient), CQ (culture quotient, or the ability to interact with people from different backgrounds), and most important of all — PQ — the passion quotient.”  So leaders are perhaps saying one thing and doing another.  A colleague once said that this is a problem of the rhetoric not matching the reality.

What are leaders doing that kill meaning at work?  Let’s see what McKinsey found and described in their article from earlier this year.

  • Consistent with Mr. Moritz’s remarks, McKinsey writes that ‘people are more creative, productive, committed, and collegial in their jobs when they have positive inner work lives.  The first, and fundamental, requirement is that the work be meaningful to the people doing it.’
  • But, managers at all levels ‘routinely and unwittingly undermine the meaningfulness of work for their direct subordinates through everyday words and actions.’  Included in these dismissals are such simple errors as dismissing the importance of someone’s work or ideas, destroying project ownership, frequently shifting goals, and not keeping subordinates up to date.
  • Leaders have a role to playing in either making or killing meaning at work.  And while a high-level leaders does not affect directly the work lives of employees to the same extent as frontline supervisors, McKinsey notes that even the slightest remarks or actions by leaders have an outsized impact on the meaning of work and they are the ones who have the responsibility for creating a ‘sense of purpose in the work and consistent action to reinforce it.’

Leaders fall into four traps that affect the meaning of work:

  1. Mediocrity Signals:  While aspiring to greatness in mission statements and speeches, are you, as the leader, ‘inadvertently signalling the opposite through your words and actions?’  Often laser-focused on one goal and vision to the exclusion of all else, a leader can forget about not losing the meaning of work for the employee population.
  2. Strategic Attention Deficit Disorder:  If you constantly scan the competitive landscape, as you should, you can lose connection with initiatives underway.  The result is ‘…too many top managers start and abandon initiatives so frequently that they appear to display a kind of attention deficit disorder when it comes to strategy and tactics.’   By not allowing sufficient time to determine if current activities are working, they ‘communicate insufficient rationales to their employees when they make strategic shifts.’  For the employee, this is not just frustrating, but dampens urgency around future projects and makes staff wonder what will occur the next time.  Uncertainty is very uncomfortable.
  3. Corporate Keystone Kops:  This is about mis-coordination, in which leaders think everything is going smoothly but are ‘blithely unaware that they preside over their own corporate version of the Keystone Kops.’  Whether this it due to a failure to act or a result of their actions is hard to determine.  What we do know is that absent coordination and support, ‘people stop believing they can produce something of high quality.’
  4. Misbegotten ‘big, hairy, audacious goals’:  We’ve all seen these — and most likely smirked at their grandiosity and irrelevance.  ‘The result  is a meaning vacuum.  Cynicism rises and drive plummets.’  What begins in earnest ends in a dud, disappointing everyone.

What do you to do help leaders avoid killing meaning at work?  You want to communicate clearly and consistently and in alignment with your mission and goals; keep employees’ perspectives in sight; build early-warning systems to indicate when ‘your view from the top doesn’t match the reality on the ground;’ and, as the leader, continue to ‘articulate the higher purpose of what people do within your organization.’