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What makes work more meaningful? “Help your co-workers and staff see progress.” In their research on ways to increase team productivity, Teresa Ambile and Steven Cramer found that small wins matter. (Harvard Business Review, May 2011, “The power of small wins”)

Making – even small – progress proved to be the overwhelming factor for how satisfied people felt at the end of the day. (So plan accordingly.) But it’s not just about progress. It’s about progress within a context of meaningful work.

In short: If you as a leader – formal or informal – consider it your job to increase individual and team effectiveness, then you are also a chief meaning officer.

How connected are you and the people around you to the mission of your team, division, or organization? While most places have a statement of purpose in place, too few can relate their activities to it.

We recently facilitated a strategy retreat with business leaders. Besides considering objectives, scope and competitive advantage, much thought was given to how the new strategy would have to be communicated across five levels of the organizational hierarchy – communicated in ways that allow everyone to relate their work responsibilities with the revised strategy. What’s commonly referred to as “line of sight” is way too often a walk in the dark for those not at helm.

Ambile’s and Cramer’s research corroborates our gut feeling about a few crucial leadership behaviors that support a sense of meaning. Imagine a 360 assessment: Perhaps the following behaviors are evident, but do they really happen?

  • Don’t dismiss but actively acknowledge people’s contributions and ideas
    While many aspire to “diversity of thought”, “open dialogue”, and “collaborative spirit” take a hard look at the behaviors that really happen around you. How quickly is an idea dismissed by not building on it? Would you like to be the devil’s advocate on your team? How much sincere appreciation goes around and do you celebrate success?
  • Increase sense of ownership
    How often do reassignments happen? How small are the packages people are expected to deliver? Is hyper-specialization eating into people’s ability to relate the bigger picture?
  • Create closure – before shifting focus or priorities
    When you look at the image next to this paragraph, your mind will automatically complete the form. Our brains are hard-wired to seek closure.
    For many, however, work priorities and expectations change so often that it feels like there they will never see the light of the day. 64% of participants in booz&co’s strategy coherence survey struggle with conflicting priorities. Consider your culture: How much foresight and planning happens? How strategic is it? Is there a commitment to a defined scope that shows what to say “yes” or “no” to? If you really need to shift focus, summarize what was accomplished rather than just dropping it.
  • Communicate the possibility of unexpected changes in customer/market requirements
    “Working for naught” is highly frustrating for any one of us. Taking contributors whose efforts went to waste seriously does not only mean informing them as early as possible about such changes – but also about reasons why those changes were unexpected.
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