4 tricks to avoid killing meaning at work

Meaning can sound like a vague feel-good goal to have, but the truth is that meaning can a crucial part of the productivity solutions employed for getting the most from a workforce. Meaning motivates, and if people believe that what they're doing matters in relation to an overarching goal, they're more likely to apply themselves to doing it well.

But it can also be frustratingly easy to kill that sense of meaning within an organisation, according to a McKinsey study. Here are three meaning-killers to watch out for.

Signalling mediocrity

It's easy for companies to say they are in the business of innovation, but what do their actions say? If risk aversion and cost-cutting makes innovation impossible, then employees will quickly see through the rhetoric and lose the sense of pride and passion that might otherwise have driven high productivity and innovative thinking.

Office politics

Having a transcendent purpose is all well and good, but employees need to feel it, and it's very difficult to feel that if there are five departments fighting each other. When coordination and cooperation are absent, it becomes terminally difficult to maintain a sense of purpose.

When management starts engaging in this, companies end up with multiple (frequently conflicting) directives flowing from the top and it can turn an organisation into a corporate version of the Keystone Cops where more energy is spent running around fighting each other than on the actual job.

Unmoored purpose

"Big Hair Audacious Goals" of BHAGs as they're also known, can be powerful tools. Google's purpose is to "organise the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful". It's great because it contextualises what the workers in the trenches do and gives those activities purpose.

But BHAGs should be tied to what employees do day-to-day. Setting a goal of increasing revenue by $100 million is putting the cart before the horse; increased company value comes from achieving the goal. High revenue targets do not provide context for employees' day-to-day activities. 

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