Every HR pro wants happy employees. So you do all you can to engage them and add meaning at work.
But your front-line managers might unknowingly undermine those efforts.
“Managers at all levels routinely – and unwittingly – undermine the meaningfulness of work for their direct subordinates through everyday words and actions,” say researchers Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer, authors of The Progress Principle. “The smallest actions pack a wallop because what you say and do is intensely observed by people down the line.”
Here are the four most common ways researchers found that managers affect meaning at work for their employees. Use the list to help front-line managers recognize the issues. Then give them direction on how to add meaning – or at least avoid killing meaning at work!
1. Misalignment for meaning at work
Most companies and their leaders aspire to be great – and express that through their mission and goals. Unfortunately, that can get muddled in the middle by opposing language and actions.
For instance, a company makes innovation the core of its mission. Managers want employees to collaborate and create. Then leaders talk about cost savings and catching up. Employees do what they can with what they have, and group progress stagnates because they lose sight of the vision while they’re trying to keep costs down.
2. Shifts in direction
Many managers are on the lookout for new ideas that can help the department and company improve. They even solicit ideas from employees. When they find the next great idea, they eagerly head in a new direction … until the next big idea comes along. They grow impatient if progress stalls and don’t tell employees enough when they decide to shift priorities.
In fact, Harvard Business School researchers found that employees working for managers who often changed their priorities held back committing to projects. The employees didn’t want to spend too much time on a cause that probably wouldn’t move forward.
3. Slight oversight
Some managers think everything is going smoothly because there’s some forward motion. Maybe the reports look good. Or no one is questioning or asking for anything.
Meanwhile, employees work in silos. Progress is individual and limited. Errors are rooted in poor communication because no one makes sure the team is coordinated.
An example from McKinsey research: One company had complex reporting rules, didn’t require teams to meet frequently and stalled decisions. So guess what employees did? Ignored complex reports, avoided meetings and didn’t make decisions – exactly what they saw going on around them.
4. Deep goals, shallow vision
Some managers set “big, hairy, audacious goals” (BHAGs) because they’re full of meaning, depth and hope. Unfortunately, they’re also often grandiose gestures that have little relevance to employees doing the work. They’re vague, unattainable and make employees cynical.
In fact, just 27% of employees actually believe in their company vision. Most just don’t care.
Employees can’t see the value of reaching for the goal because it doesn’t seem to impact what they care about: careers, society, community, well-being, balance, etc.
McKinsey researchers suggest these four strategies to avoid killing meaning:
1. Align performance reviews to the goals and strategies of the team and organization. For instance, McKinsey offers these four conversation points when you want to make sure the two are aligned: 1) What is your work? 2) How are you doing? 3) How can you improve, and 4) What will it mean for the team and its goals.
2. Choose goals and strategies consistent with your capabilities – and communicate those often. The important part is focusing on what you and your team or organization are capable of achieving. Employees are more engaged when they can see the goals are attainable.
3. Get employee perspective – early and often. Find out if the actual work toward a larger goal is meaningful to employees. Invite them to help set goals and add perspective on how they can make those more meaningful in their lives now. It’s no secret that employees value different things today than they did three years ago.
4. Create an early warning system. Schedule regular audits to check that people and processes are aligned toward the goal and they still find the work meaningful. Find pain points and clear them quickly.