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Thursday, September 19, 2013

How Leaders Kill Meaning at Work


The way we feel at work is a powerful determinant to how we perform. Our creativity, productiveness, commitment, and collaboration all depends on our attitude and emotions. This phenomenon, called the inner work life, is formally defined as the constant flow of emotions, motivations, and perceptions that constitute people’s reactions to the events of the workday. Even small boosts in inner work life can have substantial results- a more engaged work force, increased corporate momentum, and growth of the bottom line.      
So what factor has the biggest impact on the inner work life of employees? According to a study published by writer/research duo Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer in their book, The Progress Principle, it is a sense of progress in meaningful work that adds the most fuel to the fire. However, the study also finds that many senior executives don’t take their roles in enabling the ongoing engagement of their employees seriously. Instead, these leaders routinely fall into one or more of the following traps and inadvertently drain meaning from the work of their subordinates:  
Trap 1: Signals of mediocrity
Achieving greatness is an overarching goal of most organizations- their mission statements reflect the importance of innovation and their strategic goals embody the desire to always stay on the cutting edge. In theory, yes, all of this is good. However, in practice, many senior executives continue to prioritize cost savings and risk aversion above all else. When projects are continuously shut down and development is placed on the back burner, organizations exhale an air of mediocrity. Employees lose any sense of pride the once had for the company and everyday work feels frustrating and meaningless.   
Trap 2: Flip-flopping strategic direction 
Jumping between different strategic initiatives creates confusion for employees. When senior executives can’t seem to decide what direction to point the company, people have a difficult time understanding what exactly they are working toward.
Trap 3: Lack of awareness about corporate chaos
Coordination and support between management is crucial. When senior executives are not on the same page, chaos ensues below. Mixed messages eventually lead to employees believing that they simply cannot produce something of quality and their sense of purpose disappears.  
Trap 4: Poorly designed BHAG- A BHAG, short for “big, hairy, audacious goal”, is a bold strategic vision statement that carries powerful emotional appeal. Management gurus Jim Collins and Jerry Porras, who coined the term, encourage organizations to develop BHAGs as a way to help infiltrate work with meaning. When the organization’s goals are connected to personal values, employees feel their work serves a greater, more meaningful, purpose. A poorly constructed BHAG, however, can be a serious detriment. If it’s unattainable, it will seem irrelevant. And when the BHAG is too vague, it feels empty. The result is a lost sense of purpose and meaning and a cynical, unproductive workforce. 
The view from the top can often be deceiving. It takes understanding the employee’s perspective from below to recognize these traps, and more importantly, to avoid them. By establishing strategic clarity, communicating with employees, and understanding the importance of progress and purpose, senior executives can make the greatest impact on the inner work lives of others. 

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