Well-intentioned senior business leaders often shoot themselves in the foot by unwittingly draining the meaning and joy out of the work lives of their employees. This unfortunate process undermines the leaders’ effectiveness and gets in the way of attaining their organizations’ goals. That is the thesis of Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer in their article, “How Leaders Kill Meaning at Work,” in the January 2012 McKinsey Quarterly. Senior business leaders’ primary task, at least as important as developing a guiding strategy, is engaging the passion and energy of the folks in the trenches who are striving to execute that strategy. The single most important driver of engagement is the experience of making progress in meaningful work. Yet senior leaders’ smallest actions can stymie progress because what they say and do is so intensely observed by the people who report to them. Bottom line: “A sense of purpose in the work, and consistent action to reinforce it, has to come from the top. Here are four traps awaiting senior executives: Mediocrity Signals: A case study – A new top-management team instills fierce pride in its workforce by creating a trumpeted “innovation” mission statement. In practice, however, upper management consistently dictates that cost reduction goals be met before any other priorities are addressed. This over-emphasis on cost cutting causes quality to suffer, while competitors busily introduce new products. Because of this hypocrisy, the firm’s workers feel they are doing mediocre work for a mediocre company and they disengage. Many leave, and within three years the firm is acquired by a smaller rival. Strategic Attention Deficit Disorder: Earnest senior executives constantly scan the horizon to monitor competitors’ moves, the global economic environment, and their implications for financing and marketing issues. However, too many exhibit a short attention span regarding strategy and tactics. Each quarter, they promote new initiatives that are incompatible with what they asked for three months earlier. Mid-level managers receiving such inconsistent direction not surprisingly report persistent difficulty in maintaining a strong sense of purpose. Corporate Keystone Kops: Overly complex reporting structures, indecisiveness, and lack of cooperation yield chaos. Senior leaders’ failure to perceive and correct such disorder convinces workers that their efforts to produce high quality results are futile. Misbegotten “Big, Hairy, Audacious Goals”: A popular management theory urges senior leaders to develop a “big, hairy, audacious goal” – a BHAG. However, a BHAG doesn’t motivate anyone when it is overly grandiose, so extreme as to seem unattainable, and so vague as to seem empty. One firm decreed that all projects be “innovative blockbusters,” yielding a minimum annual revenue of $100 million within five years of initiation. This BHAG had little meaning for the firm’s personnel and their daily activities. It did not connect with workers’ desire to provide customers with something worthwhile. Instead, the aggressive revenue target spoke only of the top management’s own circumscribed values. Here are some ways to avoid the traps:

  • Provide employees with a consistent, meaningful strategy so they understand why they are doing what they are doing.
  • Remember what it was like when you were working in the trenches. How meaningful was it to commit to something your superiors hadn’t thought through?
  • Set up an “early warning system” to alert you when your view from the top doesn’t match the reality on the ground. Regularly gauging the level of coordination and support can prevent disarray that saps meaning from your employees’ inner work lives.
  • Motivate your people to greatness by articulating their higher purpose within the organization, and support its achievement by your own consistent daily actions.

Senior leaders who foster workers’ sense of meaning and progress in their daily work will attract and retain a committed workforce in a challenging economic environment. And they might just find greater meaning in their own work as leaders as well. Please let us know what you think of these ideas. We look forward to dialog with you – and to better times. Gail Golden

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