Meaning – a great case study

The most recent edition of People Management (March 2014) contains an article on an SME, Fittleworth, which highlights the importance of authenticity when creating a culture with meaning, purpose and compassion.

Frittleworth’s business is not glamorous – it is a mail order delivery service of ostomy, continent and wound care products, which has managed to grow significantly over the past few years, despite being unable to compete on price. But it is a delivery service provided with compassion and care. It is about ‘calling in on a lot of my friends on the way (home)’ or setting off on Christmas Day morning to be certain supplies get to a customer in a hospice or trekking up 22 flights of stairs to ensure a parcel reaches its destination.

Fittleworth does a number of things very well: they prioritise cultural fit of employees over everything else; they emphasise the customers and personalise training through The Frittleworth Way – a street populated by fictional characters each with their own back story and life changing condition; and perhaps most importantly they don’t try to impose values on others through ‘pillars on a wheel’ or through traditional corporate processes such as employee surveys and good service awards.

In short, Frittleworth has rejected much of what many large corporates have chosen as their route to employee engagement and opted for an authentic and personal approach.  HR Director Peter Waller has said that “it is more important to recognise the wonderful things that happen in our business on an everyday basis… the very nature of trying to define and make something tangible means you can inadvertently undermine it.”

For me this raises a key question as to the value of tightly worded mission and value statements which pescribe what individuals should believe in and how they must behave. This leaves little room for authenticity. Frittleworth do have values – dedication, integrity, caring and quality – but it seems they are leaving it up to their employees to interpret what that means for them, sharing everyday stories of heroism and going that extra mile without great fanfare. Perhaps this is the way forward and something we could earn all learn from.

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Best Possible Self – Day Three – Eureka

Over the past three mornings I have been engaged in an exercise aimed at increasing my levels of joy. What I’ve found is that it has increased my levels of creativity. So much so that I’ve managed to build the outline of a 9 month development programme aimed at building meaning in work.

Meaning is a critical aspect of eudaimonic fulfillment and impacts our attitude to how we approach our lives on a day to day basis. As such, it has a huge impact on the satisfaction and meaning we derive from, for instance, our work.

Based on a Gallup study of a representative sample of more than 8,000 American workers,  people who love their jobs:

• Use their strengths every day

• Feel that they are an important part of their organisation’s future.

• Are surrounded by colleagues who care about their overall well-being.

• Are excited about the future because of a leader’s enthusiasm and vision.

As it’s impossible to find such a job advertised on a job site, it’s critical to develop skills and tools for individuals to create these jobs for themselves. And that’s what the Eureka moment was about.

Amy Wrzesniewski, professor of organisational behavior at the Yale School of Management, says people reinvent their jobs by exercising the little bit of control they have at work. Through what she calls job crafting, people can reshape and redefine their jobs. In a paper she co-wrote, she says you can use your knowledge of what you do best to choose “to do fewer, more, or different tasks than prescribed in the formal job.” Changing the quality and amount of interaction with your colleagues, she says, can bring a renewed sense of belonging and purpose.

A LOVE-WORTHY job isn’t just for a privileged few — say, those who went to red brick universities or public schools. With a deep understanding of what drives you and what you are best at, you can make almost any job more lovable and more MEANINGFUL.

Small tweeks matter. Do you know what your strengths are? Are you using them to best effect in your work? Does your boss know what your strengths are? How can you tweek your work to play to your strengths and make it more meaningful?

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How to be your best possible self

I am embarking on a 3 day writing exercise to boost my levels of joy.

The Best Possible Self (BPS) exercise is one originally used by Pennebaker to help trauma victims get over the trauma by writing about their experience.The writing acts as a therapeutic means of getting closure and it seems to work. The BPS has since been hijacked by the positive psychology community and turned on its’ head so that we now write 15 mintues, uninterrupted ‘brain dump’ on our perfect future (maybe 3 to 5 years out).  This morning I had three brainwaves during the first day of writing. One of them was writing this blog and by doing so hope to prolong the positive feelings experienced through writing. It also means I am introducing others to this fantastic, short and very efficient exercise. What other exercise that you know of produces 3 ideas worth exploring after 15 mintues?
And there’s more to come: this is only day one.


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Employees want emotional support but can managers give it?

This blog summarises major research that appeared throughout 2013 on the leader – follower relationship and appeared in the BPS Occupational Research Digest. It raises questions about the emotional expectations of workers today and the value, if any, of the transformational leader.

There was plenty of research on the give and take between leader and follower, and the ways this can fall out of balance. This can be due to a clash of expectations: for instance, managers are likely to see emotional support of those they manage as something over-and-above their normal duties. They expect their employees to reciprocate in kind, but employees just don’t see it that way. In their eyes, managers are paid to support them.

Manager expectations can be a powerful alignment tool, drawing more performance out of those judged to ‘have the stuff’ by inspiring them and painting a picture of what is possible. But a theoretical paper explains that the reason why this so-called Pygmalion effect doesn’t always hold may be because some leaders aren’t trusted enough for their followers to take a risk and make big changes.

There is no single optimal way to lead: a team’s aims and general attitude matters, as does each individual follower, in terms of how much they trust you and where they are in their organisational journey. Data that suggests both directive (perform work as I have told you to) and empowering (find your own routes to delivering outcomes) leadership styles can have performance benefits, in the appropriate contexts. Empowerment, it appears, can reap long-term rewards relative to direction, but often at the cost of immediate performance.

And transformational leadership, sometimes considered a ‘holy grail’, appears to matter more when followers are low in energy, less curious and fairly pessimistic. Employees with naturally positive mindsets don’t benefit so much from the transformational leader’s inspiration and motivational effect – because they are in a good place to begin with.

Leaders may have expectations about us, but we also have expectations about them. Demanding our leaders act accountably appears to be particularly important when the leader is an outsider – a business pro heading up a research institute, for instance. Data suggests that the necessity of justifying their actions leads them to make decisions that are more favourable to their team members. Meanwhile, we’re relatively tolerant of tentative behaviour from leaders from inside the organisation, willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. Unless they are a woman, in which case we judge them for it.

And on that note….

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Play to your strengths to create a meaningful life

I love this article by Bridget-Grenville-Cleave which appeared in Positive Psychology news. It so neatly highlights not only the importance of playing to our strengths, but by doing so, it is possible to create a meaningful life.




Earlier this month I got together with several of my colleagues to share ideas about using the VIA Character Strengths at work. We talked about how acceptable the VIA Strengths are in business circles (in our experience, very), how people react to their VIA Strengths, and how we use them in our training.

We also shared examples of the ways in which we’ve seen the same strength displayed in different people. Take Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence. Here are the stories of three people who have Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence among their top strengths.

Carole’s Story

Carole is a quietly confident 40-something stay-at-home mom with two kids. She comes across as pretty reserved and self-contained. When asked to talk about how Appreciation of Beauty shows up in her life, she immediately warms up with enthusiasm for her love of natural beauty, her sense of connection to the world around her, and her love of the great outdoors.

Nature Wallpaper

Nature Wallpaper

I’ve always felt more comfortable outside than I do indoors. I always wanted to be outside as a child, come rain or shine. I can remember, as a youngster,  the feeling of joy and wonder in my heart,  playing in the little wood at the end of my best friend’s garden, and my delight at seeing little woodland anemones, primroses and suchlike peeping up in the Spring, that earthy, leafy smell, and experiencing the seasons change.

When asked how Appreciation of Beauty shows up in her life now, she’s almost apologetic.  She describes the family’s weekend rambles in the countryside. She doesn’t just savor the fine views. She actively tends the countryside by picking up stray litter dropped by careless walkers or blown there by the wind.

I feel so in tune with nature that I feel compelled to look after it and keep it looking beautiful. My family thinks I’m mad but I actually enjoy it. It makes me feel I’m caring for the world.”

Mel’s Story

Mel surprised her family 20 years ago. When she finished her math degree at a top university, she went straight into the antiques restoration business.



Looking back, it was a natural step for me and it fits perfectly with my strength of Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence. As a youngster I liked nothing better than scouring jumble sales for beautiful trinkets which I collected, cleaned, and displayed in my bedroom when my friends were talking about fashion, boys, and makeup. My mother used to collect china figurines when I was small, and I can still picture them all – gazing at them in their glass cabinet because we weren’t allowed to touch. I remember the day I discovered the figurine of a dancer in a junk shop – it had a crack on one side. I felt that such a beautiful piece with such intricate detail shouldn’t be consigned to the junk – I just had to restore it. It wasn’t just the beauty of the piece, it was the recognition of the hours of work it took someone to make it and paint it. And that’s how it started. Since then I just haven’t looked back.”

Mel runs her own workshop specializing in restoring 18th century figurines, vases, and tableware.

Rachel’s Story

Rachel is a successful learning and development manager in a big consulting firm. She was initially surprised that Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence was one of her top VIA strengths until she discussed it with friends.

It’s funny how sometimes you can’t see what’s under your nose, but straightaway they all said ‘Just look at the job you do, and the way you do it!’ and of course they’re right. When I run L&D workshops, I’m full of energy and enthusiasm – I love making sure that I design them to look and feel exactly right. It gives me a real buzz making the whole thing come together. And I’m always noticing new role models, people who do X or Y really well – if they’re in the business I invite them to come and talk in my workshops! It’s true that I love seeing people be the best that they can be. If the work I do helps people excel, that’s really gratifying.”

Strengths show up in different ways in different people. We just need to be alert to the different ways they can manifest.


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Don’t search for meaning, otherwise you’ll never find it

Most recently, the term ‘meaning’ has entered the business lexicon. So much so that McKinsey have developed a ‘meaning quotient’ to measure the level of meaning within an organisation. ‘Meaning’ and finding meaning in one’s work has become the new holy grail, the next big thing beyond employee engagement.

And yet an interesting article by MAPP graduate, Genevieve Douglass in Positive Psychology News Daily points out the complexities in meaning. In searching for meaning, we potentially destroy any opportunity to experience or create this meaning. According to Douglass, this is because creativity and goal pursuit (such as picking out a purpose in life) are separate neural processes. The more engaged you are searching for your purpose, the less imaginative you can be, according to neuroscience.

In the last few years, the term calling has been used in psychology to describe a sense of working because you love the work, not for money or respect, but because it gives you a sense of meaning. About a third of people view their work this way, while a third of us see work as a career, something to build status and find constant achievement, and a third of us see work more the way the Ancient Greeks did, something we get through so that we can pursue our calling as a potato sculptor.

The lucky 33% of people who have a calling are more satisfied with their lives and jobs, have fewer health problems, feel more energetic, experience more meaning and significance from work, and miss fewer days of it. They also tended to make more money and think of themselves as having a higher social status than people with careers and jobs, so perhaps some jobs are more conducive to being callings than others. However, researcher Amy Wrzesniewki and her colleagues have found that even janitors can find meaning in the work.

So why is it tricky to find one’s life purpose? Purpose is probably something that will require some inspiration. So, even though you know you want to write a book, the actual writing of the book can be hampered by aiming for a book. You just need to get on with the writing and ignore that it may or may not be a book. At some point you’ll want to pop your head up and see if you’re making any sense. But that’s a different mindset, best saved for a different time.

In other words, spending your time with your foot on the ship bow, your hand at your brow blocking the sun, hoping that your calling will appear, spouting like a sea sprite, is probably going to keep you from developing it. (Unless you feel called to pursue your calling, which I guess could happen.) In fact, pursuing such happiness can actually detract from being happy. It’s just like being in a relationship. If you’re still looking around at other people, you’re not committed to making what you’ve got into something amazing.

What are the big take-aways about meaning and calling? It’s okay if you don’t know what your calling is. Just say that to yourself and let it sit for a second. Just notice what you’re curious about and who you enjoy being around. Follow what spurs you into action. It might be comforting to know that even if you did find your calling, that feeling is most likely to change as we grow and develop.

From an organisational perspective, organisations might be wise avoiding imposing an artificial meaning into roles through tightly worded mission or vision statements. Particularly as many as 2/3 of employees may not derive meaning from their work. Maybe it is more about helping them find what aspects of their work they find meaningful without any value judgements.

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How to build ownership – write your own lottery ticket.

Daniel Kahneman is a psychologist I admire alot. In a TED talk he shared some surprising results of an experiment. During the experiment, half the participants were randomly assigned a lottery ticket, the other half were given a blank piece of paper and asked to write down a lottery number on the ticket. Researchers then offered to buy back the tickets from the participants. Given that a lottery is pure chance, rationallyyou might think participants would feel the same about their ticket, whether they wrote the number or not, and value it accordingly. However, researchers found they HAD TO PAY AT LEAST FIVE TIMES MORE to those who wrote down their own number.

So it seems that when we choose for ourselves, we are much more committed to the outcome, by a factor of at least five to one.

What are the implications for business? How often do we try to implement change across a business from a top down approach? Do we ever provide opportunities for individuals to create and articulate their own stories of change and success? Individuals should be given opportunities to ‘write their own lottery ticket’ to build ownership and commitment. It will take longer, but the commitment and buy in will likely shorten implementation by a factor of five to one.


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Make work meaningful by not putting the organisation first

We’ve had IQ, then EQ and now, according to McKinsey, we have MQ – meaning quotient. MQ refers to the peak performance experience involving high stakes; excitement; a challenge; and something that the individual feels matters, will make a diference and hasn’t been done before. McKinsey states that employees working in a high-IQ, high -EQ and high-MQ environment are five times more productive at their peak than they are on average.

My research on meaning has found that it is something intensely personal and unique to the individual. Moreoever I’m not convinced creating meaning (or attempting to measure and define it in terms of a ‘quotient’) should be the role of the organisation. Once an organisation tries to create it for others, the magic is lost and it becomes yet another management process alongside employee engagement and performance management.

What is much more effective is to facilitate a process where individuals can identify what is meaningful for them. This is not likely to be the organisation but much more likely to be family, friends, a particular ’cause’ the individual feels passionate about. And an individual will feel passionate or connected about many things at any time with the focus moving from one area to another. Work and the organisation will be there as part of the passion, but may not always hold centre stage and organisations need to feel comfortable with that concept.

Organisations can help individuals define what is meaningful for them within the work context by:

  • enabling individuals to identify ways in which they can make their society a better place
  • identifying ways in which the individual can provide a better service to a customer
  • creating a sense of belonging within a local team
  • creating a sense of empowerment (and letting them identify what’s meaningful for them is part of this!).

These four sources have been proven to give individuals a sense of meaning so long as they are introduced in a sensitive way and are not too prescriptive.

In what other ways can we help individuals discover what is meaningful in their work? And does it matter if we find that our employees predominantly seek meaning outside of work?

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Emotions are catchy – do we need to be innoculated?

Emotions are a crucial aspect of how we experience our day to day working lives. They are seen as useful markers of optimal well being and experiencing more positive than negative emotions contributes to our happiness. There are significant benefits to employing happy workers. Happy workers take less time off, are less stressed and demonstrate higher levels of creativity, organisational citizenship, cooperation, creativity, problem solving and performance (Lyubomirsky, King, & Diener, 2005). Providing frequent opportunities to experience positive emotions and thereby increase happiness is a way in which organisations can increase workforce positivity and engagement.


Barbara Fredrickson’s Broaden and Build theory (1998) proposes that individuals can build their thought processes through frequent experience of positive emotions. When experiencing positive emotions, individuals create more suggestions and think more globally or broadly, helping with creative problem solving. Positive emotions also provide an antidote to negative emotions and help individuals to recover from an emotionally challenging or negative experience helping us bounce back from negative experiences, such as a poor performance review or a confrontational interaction with an unhappy customer. She found that two emotions in particular, joy and contentment, can undo the after affect of negative emotions.


Individual happiness impacts upon organisational happiness through a concept known as emotional contagion. Emotional contagion occurs when individuals mimic another person’s emotional expression and then experience these emotions themselves. This occurs with both negative and positive emotions. Because there has been research to suggest negative emotions have a greater impact than positive emotions (‘bad is bigger’), it is easy to see how a negative mood can spiral within an organisation. Clearly we need to raise our own levels of self awareness around how we are feeling to understand our potential impact on those around others. Trying to disguise how we are feeling doesn’t really work either: through a process of emotional leakage, others can easily pick up how we are really feeling. For instance, recent developments in neuroscience which include the use of fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) have demonstrated brain to brain transmission of emotions: when an individual feels and appears uneasy about something, others will experience that unease, even when they did not witness the situation (Boyatzis, 2012).


Organisational culture can have an impact on emotions.  Organisations which encourage a certain style of working are likely to suppress emotions which in turn can have a negative effect as suppressing emotions, whether positive or negative, is associated with high stress. Ironically, carefully worded value statements encouraging us to be happy and upbeat at all times, might well be having the opposite effect.


Both negative and positive emotions need to be expressed and ‘aired’. Individuals’ emotions ‘wax’ and ‘wane’ throughout the day and we need to recognise this and not always expect everyone to be ‘up’ every moment of the day. For instance, a teacher is required to be ‘on show’ when delivering to her class but needs opportunities to let off steam and experience different emotions in the staff room. Encouraging individuals to celebrate success and recall happier times, will help build the emotional fortitude to enable individuals to get through the tough times and prevent negative spirals or emotions.


Specifically, there are some positive psychology interventions (PPI) introduced into organisations which are delivering some great results:


  • Mindfulness training– mindfulness helps in a couple of ways: firstly it relieves stress and therefore reduces the potential for negative, inappropriate emotional outbursts (which are spread through emotional contagion); secondly, it raises self awareness as individuals are more in touch with their emotions through the mindfulness techniques.
  • Strengths based coaching – a focus on strengths encourages positive emotions and a feel good factor. Working to one’s strengths also raises an individual’s level of well being.



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Why are positive emotions important?

What role do emotions play with regards to employee engagement?

Experiencing positive emotions can raise well being, encourage creativity and broaden thinking. Experiencing negative emotions can lead to anti social behaviour, narrower thinking and negativity.

All emotions are part of day to day life but the balance and the context in which we experience them are critical. “The data say that when considering positive emotions, more is better. The data also say that when considering negative emotions, less is better, down to a point. Negativity can either promote healthy functioning or kill it, depending on its contextual appropriateness and dosage relative to positive emotions. ” Barbara Fredrickson, 2013

This raises a number of questions: what are organisations today doing to increase positive emotions and limit negative emotions? Are leaders aware of these concepts? And, if so, do they pay them any credence? How does how people feel, emotionally, impact employee engagement in an organisation?

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