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Ideas for Leaders #052

Managers Who Undermine the Meaningfulness of Work

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Key Concept

A sense of working toward something meaningful is absolutely central to our happiness and well-being. Sadly, many senior executives undermine their employees’ creativity and productivity by inadvertently denying them this meaning. There exist common traps which even the best-intentioned managers will fall foul of in this regard. A loss of meaningfulness in the work lives of employees has obvious long-term implications for the overall health of an organization. This Idea identifies those traps and shows how we can avoid them.

Idea Summary

Do managers at all levels routinely - and unwittingly - undermine the meaningfulness of work for their direct subordinates through everyday words and actions? Of all the events that can deeply engage people in their jobs, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work. Yet actions such as dismissing the importance of subordinates’ work or ideas, or shifting goals so frequently that people despair that their work will ever see the light of day are all too common in organizations.

The smallest actions on the part of senior leaders matter greatly in creating meaningful work, as what they say and do is intensely observed by people down the line. A sense of purpose in the work, and consistent action to reinforce it, has to come from the top.

Through analysis of nearly 12,000 electronic diary entries from professionals at seven North American companies, this research highlights four traps that ‘lie in wait’ for senior executives:

  • Trap 1 - Mediocrity signals: this is inadvertently signalling the opposite of a company’s corporate mission statement through words and actions. For example, focusing so much on cost savings that autonomy of teams is negated, with cost reduction goals repeatedly dictated. This will lead to many employees feeling like they are doing mediocre work for a mediocre company.
  • Trap 2 - Strategic ‘attention deficit disorder’: too many top managers start and abandon initiatives so frequently that they appear to display a kind of attention deficit disorder (ADD) when it comes to strategy and tactics. They don’t allow sufficient time to discover whether initiatives are working, and they communicate insufficient rationales to their employees when they make strategic shifts.
  • Trap 3 - Corporate Keystone Kops: many executives who think everything is going smoothly in the everyday workings of their organizations are blithely unaware that they preside over their own corporate version of the ‘Keystone Kops’ (a fictional policemen from a popular series of silent-film comedies, so incompetent that he was run around in circles). When coordination and support are absent within an organization, people stop believing that they can produce something of high quality. This makes it extremely difficult to maintain a sense of purpose.
  • Trap 4 - Misbegotten ‘big, hairy, audacious goals’: a ‘big, hairy, audacious goal’ (BHAG, pronounced bee-hag) - a bold strategic vision statement that has powerful emotional appeal. These goals can be so extreme as to seem unattainable and so vague as to seem empty. The result is a meaning vacuum. Cynicism rises and drive plummets.

Business Application

Most executives do not understand the power of progress in meaningful work. The traps revealed by the diaries suggest that most executives don’t act as though progress matters. We can do better. Spotting and sidestepping these traps is not easy. Nevertheless, the following ideas may hopefully spark discussion within C-suites on avoiding them:

  • When you communicate with employees, do you provide strategic clarity that’s consistent with your organization’s capabilities and an understanding of where it can add the most value?
  • Can you keep sight of the individual employee’s perspective?
  • Do you have any early-warning systems that indicate when your view from the top doesn’t match the reality on the ground?

Finally, it’s vital for us to remember that executives are in a better position than anyone to identify and articulate the higher purpose of what people do within an organization.

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Idea conceived

  • 2012

Idea posted

  • January 2013

DOI number



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