This is the second part of a mini-series on the Why of Work. Read Part 1 here.
So, how do leaders become meaning makers who shape abundant organizations?
Too often, we encounter leaders who formulate great strategies, structures, and processes but overlook the heart and soul that make abundant organizations which are meaningful places to work. The questions both leaders and followers wrestle with connect around the search for the why of work—the search for meaning, purpose. Finding that why infuses organizations with a sense of abundance—having enough and to spare of what matters most.
In life, meaning is tied less to belongings and more to emotional bonds, a sense of purpose, and using one’s skills to serve the needs of others. In organizations, meaning and abundance are more about what we do with what we have than about what we have to begin with or what we accumulate. They are more about finding the resources to deal with our challenges than about having unlimited resources to make work easy.
Work will always be work—sometimes monotonous or routine, sometimes stressful to the max—but we believe work can still contribute more than just money to our lives. Leaders can develop the resources to make employees work harder and to make work work for employees. There is a strong business case for helping people find meaning at work. As employees find meaning, they contribute to the broadest purposes for which organizations exist: creating value for customers, investors, and communities.
Leaders are meaning makers: they set direction that others aspire to; they help others participate in doing good work and good works; they communicate ideas and invest in practices that shape how people think, act, and feel. As organizations become an increasing part of the individual’s sense of identify and purpose, leaders play an increasing role in helping people shape the meaning of their lives.
Too many leaders focus on where they are going and how to get there, without paying attention to how it feels to those on the journey with them. When leaders make work meaningful, they help create abundant organizations where employees operate on a value proposition based on meaning as well as money. Meaning becomes a multiplier of employee competence and commitment, a lead indicator of customer share, a source of investor confidence, and a factor in ensuring social responsibility in the community. Even hard-nose leaders become interested in meaning when they see its potential contribution to bottom-line realities. When leaders grasp the why of meaning, they then seek the how.
We hope to redefine leaders’ roles to include meaning making. We hope to promote for all of us who go to work day in and day out a sense of greater abundance because we have a clearer sense of the meaning of our labor. We hope to focus not only on what needs to be done but also on how it feels to do it. We hope to turn deficit-laden thinking into abundance metaphors and actions.
Meaning at work. Leaders need to put meaning to work to help their organizations succeed in the marketplace. The search for meaning adds value in two senses. First, people are meaning-making machines who find inherent value in making sense out of life. The meaning we make of an experience determines its impact on us and can turn disaster into opportunity, loss into hope, failure into learning, boredom into reflection. The meaning we create can make life feel rich and full, regardless of our circumstances or give us the courage to change our circumstances. When we find meaning in our work, we find meaning in life.
Abundant Organizations (AOs). We refer to a company that is meaningful as an abundant organization—a work setting in which individuals coordinate their aspirations and actions to create meaning for themselves, value for stakeholders, and hope for humanity. AOs have enough and to spare of the things that matter most: creativity, hope, resilience, determination, resourcefulness, and leadership. Yes, they are profitable, but rather than focus only on competition and scarcity, they focus on opportunity and synergy. They concentrate on bringing order, integrity, and purpose out of chaos and disintegration. Rather than restrict themselves to narrow, self-serving agendas, they integrate a diversity of human needs, experiences, and timetables—creating meaning for the employees who comprise them and the customers who keep them in business.
Market value of why. You intuitively know that you and your work team would be more productive, satisfied, and creative if work engaged not only your head and your hands but your heart and soul. When employees find meaning at work, they care enough about it to develop their competence; they work harder and are more productive; they stay longer and are more positive. And when employees are more positive, customers respond in kind. Employee attitude is a key indicator of customer attitude, and satisfied customers help the businesses they patronize to survive and thrive. Meaning reinforces employees’ passion for work because it ties what they do to a greater good that pays off in the marketplace. Passion for work is an intangible asset that has a direct impact on a firm’s market value. Meaningful work solves real problems, contributes real benefits, and adds real value to customers and investors. Employees who find meaning in their work are more satisfied, more engaged, and more productive. They work harder, smarter, more passionately and creatively. They learn and adapt. They’re more connected to customer needs. And they stick around. Leaders invest in meaning making not only because it is noble but also because it is profitable. Making sense can also make cents.
Leaders as meaning makers. How are abundant organizations created? This is the task of leadership. The crisis of meaning is always a crisis of leadership. Abundance is not only a prerogative for leaders of rich people, smart people, prestigious people, successful people. Meaning is not only in short supply for poor people, mediocre people, struggling people, hurting people. Great leaders recognize the vital importance of abundance and meaning to all stakeholders, including themselves. What do the best companies do to maintain outstanding performance? Of course they make money via excellent customer service and many other solid management practices or they would not survive. But they also tap into the elusive quality of meaning. In exceptional companies, leaders turn the meaning employees find in their work into sustained abundance. Though each company has a unique take on how to make this connection, all develop leaders who help employees find meaning at work that contributes to organizational success. Leaders have the task of creating a direction that is charged with meaning—one that resonates with not only the minds and hands but the hearts of those they lead.
Recessions of meaning. In both lean and prosperous times, an organization’s values are tested and forged, setting the stage for the future. Meaning is shaped or dissipated. Loyalties are won or lost. Talent and skill are honed or abandoned. Creativity and problem-solving skill are developed or undermined. And future sustainability is either ensured or threatened. We need AOs in deficit-dominated contexts that challenge our existing sense of meaning and in growth-dominated contexts that give rise to expansion. The search for meaning is more about how we think than about the circumstances in which we find ourselves. Deficit thinking can abound even amid plenty.
Prevalence of deficit thinking. When employees lose what they have come to count on and expect—be it a person, an income, a position, or security, identity, or direction—they are inclined to deficit thinking, a common problem when people stand to lose not only their personal treasures but also their retirement, colleagues, and jobs. Deficit thinking is probably inevitable, perhaps even helpful, in some situations, but when leaders’ thinking is dominated by an agenda of self-protection, deficit thinking itself becomes the burglar. It can lock us into a prison of our own making, a prison dominated by fear, isolation, disorientation, and competition for scarce resources. Even if we get back what we lost—even if the economy improves, the takeover is averted, or we end up with a better job than before—our deficit thinking can continue to cast an discomfiting spell over our lives. The thieves and robbers of crisis undermine the ability of leaders to foster abundance. Once we realize the precariousness of the things we depend on for security, security cannot be restored fully until our dependencies change. This is where great leaders come in.
Leaders spearhead the search for meaning in both good times and bad. In up markets, when talent is scarce, meaning matters because employees are essentially volunteers who can choose where to allocate their time and energy.
Employees who felt mistreated during a down market or whose meaning at work is found only in crisis containment are more likely to leave when things settle down and they have options.
So, as we get ready for work, are we paying attention to the meaning we find in the work we do. As HR professionals coach leaders, are they not only focusing on the technical leadership roles, but leaders as meaning makers. Will our company build abundance by focusing on meaning as well as money. Making meaning makes both sense and cents.
If you enjoyed this article by Dave and Wendy Ulrich about the meaning of work, you'll enjoy them at our live learning venue even more! They will be discussing topics around this subject and much more. Join hundreds of leaders learning together how to operate their company well, all on a biblical platform at the Leadership Summit 2017 in Hilton Head, SC. Find out more here.
Can't make the Summit but crave more learning? Tune in to our Convene online leadership learning portal!