How leaders kill meaning at work

A multiyear research project reported in a book by Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer, The Progress Principle, found that of all the events that can deeply engage people in their jobs, the single most important element is making progress in meaningful work.

Even incremental steps forward—small wins—boost what they call “inner work life”: the constant flow of emotions, motivations, and perceptions that constitute a person’s reactions to the events of the work day. Beyond affecting the well-being of employees, inner work life affects the bottom line. People are more creative, productive, committed, and collegial in their jobs when they have positive inner work lives. But it’s not just any sort of progress in work that matters. The first, and fundamental, requirement is that the work be meaningful to the people doing it.

However, Amabile and Kramer found that managers at all levels routinely, and unwittingly, undermine the meaningfulness of work for their direct subordinates through everyday words and actions.

They found four ‘traps’ senior executives fell into:

Trap 1: Mediocrity signals – articulating a higher purpose for the organisation (such as being the creative market leader) but in reality focusing on something “less noble” (cost cutting.

Trap 2: Strategic ‘attention deficit disorder’ –when too many top managers are seen to be starting and then quickly abandoning initiatives making it difficult for employees to maintain a strong sense of purpose.

Trap 3: Corporate ‘Keystone Kops’ – when an organisation lacks co-ordination, people stop believing they can produce anything, let along anything of high quality.

Trap 4: Misbegotten ‘big, hairy, audacious goals’ – Management gurus Jim Collins and Jerry Porras encouraged organizations to develop a “big, hairy, audacious goal” (BHAG, pronounced bee-hag)—a bold strategic vision statement that has powerful emotional appeal. When these goals are too extreme they seem unattainable and if too vague, they seem empty.

On a more positive note, both Amabile and Kramer state that senior executives are in a better position than most to identify and articulate the higher purpose of what people do within their organisation. “Make that purpose real, support its’ achievement through consistent everyday actions and they can create the meaning that motivates people towards achievement.”